DES MOINES, Iowa --
To the longest, most intense presidential campaign in American history, we introduce a new element on Thursday: voters.
Welcome -- you've missed so much, but (as this first contest is bound to show) really nothing at all. The party couldn't start without you.
It will be bone-cold, blustery, yet generally clear across the Hawkeye State when what's likely to be a record number of Democrats -- and a decidedly low number of Republicans -- drop by one of some 3,562 sites (that's 1,781 precincts times two) to engage in the peculiar exercise of American democracy known as the Iowa caucuses.
When it's done, a measure of clarity will descend upon this unwieldy presidential race. Frontrunners will be anointed, momentum will be generated -- and Iowans will almost certainly consign some also-rans to footnotes on Wikipedia pages.
But before we get inside the warmth of the caucus rooms -- starting at 7 pm Iowa time, 8 pm ET -- the frantic, frigid dash continues. All three front-running Democrats ended the Iowa campaign with *blocks of TV time during Wednesday evening's Iowa newscasts, and you can't turn on a television without seeing some candidate on some talk show -- or at least, if you're in Iowa, and ad or 12.
Even late-night television got its dose of Campaign '08, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., taping a line to mark David Letterman's return to the air, and former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., grabbing Jay Leno's couch (and making one last gaffe by not realizing he was crossing a picket line to do so).
"Oh well -- all good things must come to an end," Clinton told Dave, talking about the writers' strike -- but it could just as easily apply to Iowa.
Among the Democrats, the campaign ends essentially where it started roughly a year ago -- no histrionics, just candidates pushing forward with their messages. Clinton "asked voters at rallies and in a two-minute television commercial broadcast statewide, 'Who is ready to be president?' " The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny writes.
"Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, implored supporters to believe in his candidacy, asking, 'Who can take us in a fundamentally new direction?' John Edwards of North Carolina pledged to represent struggling Americans, saying, 'Who's going to fight for you?' "
Obama closed out his final night campaigning in Iowa with a praise for what he called "the best grassroots organization that Iowa has ever seen," ABC's Sunlen Miller reports. "All [the] rallies, all the excitement, all the fun, all that's behind us, and what matters is do we show up, do we stand up, do we reach for what's possible tomorrow?" Obama said.
On the Republican side, the battle for first is between longtime frontrunner (and big-time spender) former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., and Huckabee, who burst onto the scene only in the final month-plus of the campaign. And they're sparring until the end.
"People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with, rather than the guy that laid them off," Huckabee told Leno, after jamming with "The Tonight Show" band in a scene reminiscent of Bill Clinton on Arsenio.