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.
There's another big GOP battle -- for third place. A strong showing by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would be a huge boost for his candidacy, particularly with the New Hampshire primary -- where he's in a virtual first-place tie -- just five days away. He'll be a secondary winner -- and the big story going into the weekend -- if he takes a decisive third.
Former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., has said he needs to come in second place -- an increasingly difficult task for the late-starting (and slow-moving) candidate. Thompson could top the Iowa casualty list, with Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., generally viewed as the most likely Democrat to exit the race if he has a poor showing on Thursday.
"Without a solid third-place finish, there's no point in going on," a Thompson adviser tells Politico's Jonathan Martin and Mike Allen.
They write: "Thompson's departure could shake up the race more than his continued presence. Friends and advisers said they have long considered it likely that if the lobbyist-actor is forced from the race he would endorse John McCain his former Senate colleague who lately has been staging a political revival in New Hampshire."
There are only two factors left that campaigns can hope to control (and they will learn to their frustration on Thursday night that they really don't control either one): expectations and turnout.
From the vantage point of the Democrats' gurus, the campaign comes down to a clash between Joe Trippi's angry passion (the Edwards campaign), Mark Penn's poll-tested numbers (Clinton), and David Axelrod's soaring vision (Obama).
Obama's campaign -- with his hope-ing mad rhetoric and his appeal to independents and Republicans -- represents the biggest challenge to the traditional assumptions surrounding the caucuses and the nominating process more broadly.
"America will finally have an answer to the question: Is Obama another Howard Dean, or can he win the nomination?" Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post. "Like Dean, he has challenged the Democratic establishment with a coalition of students and political independents. His candidacy, like Dean's, will collapse if they don't show up."
"It is, in other words, a battle between the passion and the machine, between Hillary Clinton's establishment support and the superior enthusiasm of Obama's supporters," Milbank continues. "The Republican contest here is almost identical: a fight between an establishment candidate, Mitt Romney, and an insurgent favored by evangelicals, Mike Huckabee."
A big turnout would seem to favor Obama, since he's counting on the largest number of first-time caucus-goers -- including students and non-Democrats, per Sasha Issenberg of The Boston Globe.
"A victory for Obama would offer proof not only of his electoral viability, but demonstrate a constituency for his calls of national unity and validate his optimism that the partisan environment of American politics can be successfully challenged," Issenberg writes.
Like the other candidates, Obama is seeking to convey optimism without cockiness; he wants to find a way to declare success even if caucus night ends with a celebration in somebody else's ballroom.
"I don't think there is any doubt that, even if we didn't come in first, that we have been competitive in Iowa," Obama tells the Chicago Tribune's John McCormick and Christi Parsons. Regarding his status as the first black candidate to make a serious run for Iowa (and the nomination), he said: "That says something about the country."
Obama said on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Thursday that his campaign is well-positioned to move to the next rounds of states "no matter what happens." "Anything is possible at this point, but we know that we've done a terrific job organizing in New Hampshire and Nevada and South Carolina," he told Diane Sawyer. "This is the beginning and not the end. Our goal is just to do well tonight."
Likewise, Camp Clinton is hoping for first -- but bracing for third. "She has done what she needed to do here," former governor Tom Vilsack, D-Iowa, perhaps Clinton's most prominent Iowa supporter, told ABC News on Wednesday.
"She absolutely had to be competitive, and she's accomplished that."
Edwards knows he can't afford third place; there's no spinning away a worse finish than he had in 2004, after he has pinned his hopes on an Iowa win.
He closed out a 36-hour "marathon" bus tour Wednesday night: "Tomorrow night you need to send a fighter and a warrior into that arena on your behalf," he said, per ABC's Raelyn Johnson.
Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen sums up the stakes in a final ode to Iowa: "Someone will win, and someone will lose. (Some are now saying Iowa won't mean much this year because it could be close. I doubt that. The big buckle still goes to a champ, no matter how close the score.)"
The Republican race is also shaping up as a battle between the establishment (Romney and the $10 million he's dropped in Iowa) and a challenger (Huckabee, with his haphazard, make-it-up-as-he-goes-along operation).
It's "an early test of the importance of money in the most expensive presidential race in history, as the underfunded Huckabee threatens to derail Romney's costly and well-organized campaign," The Boston Globe's Susan Milligan reports.
Huckabee embraces the metaphor, casting himself as the ragtag Revolutionary army to Romney's spit-polished British Redcoats: "At the beginning of this country there were some farmers with muskets," Huckabee said Wednesday, ABC's Jake Tapper reports.
"Nobody thought they could beat the British. After all, the British were so well-financed. . . . They had a magnificent Navy. Our guys had a few rowboats."
But in the wake of a bizarre press conference where he unveiled an attack ad only to say he wouldn't be running it, he couldn't even appear on national television without some controversy.
Huckabee told reporters Wednesday that he though the writers' guild reached a "special arrangement" with all the late-night shows to allow them to return to the air; in fact, Huckabee was crossing a picket line Wednesday night in Burbank, Calif., per ABC's Kevin Chupka.
The Romney campaign remains unflappable in the closing hours -- confident that the 22,000 daily phone calls and 99-county organization will work like his business plan for Staples.
Romney bristled at the suggestion that things aren't perfectly on track for him -- notwithstanding the money he's dumped into Iowa only to face a Huck of a fight. "Hey, it couldn't be better -- are you kidding me? I was an unknown, and here I am the only guy who's in contention for the top spot in both [Iowa and New Hampshire]," he told ABC's Chris Cuomo on "Good Morning America."
"I'm in a good spot in both of these two states. I'd like to win 'em, but if I don't win, coming in second in these states is a strong statement."
But Time's Joe Klein wonders if Romney has zagged one too many times. Of his positive stump speech, Klein writes, "This guy is, literally, unbelievable and completely at odds with the Romney festering on television screens and in mailings throughout Iowa and New Hampshire. That Romney is nonstop negative, and jingo-crazed about the perils of illegal immigration."
"The problem is schizophrenia: negative Romney on television, positive Romney on the stump. Moderate Massachusetts Mitt vs. Raging Romney of the primaries," Klein writes.
AP's Ron Fournier wonders if Huckabee can win in spite of the fact that he hasn't built an Iowa organization -- or put to rest questions about his record.
If he wins, it will be because -- "with no encouragement or even help from the bare-bones Huckabee campaign, [his die-hard supporters] came together on a snowy night last week to get up the courage to caucus for the former Arkansas governor," Fournier writes.
"If he loses, it will because Huckabee's intemperate performance in the campaign's final days raised concerns in supporters like Porter who desperately wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt."
As any campaign will tell you, it's all about turnout -- and Democrats are counting on a much bigger night than Republicans (your enthusiasm gap in action).
"Recent polls have shown the percentage of Iowa independents planning to participate in the Democratic caucuses is far higher than those who say they will caucus for Republicans," Thomas Beaumont writes in the Des Moines Register.
"Turnout for the Democrats is projected to be higher than Republicans, perhaps double."
And looking forward to the days when it will be easy to get a reservation at Lucca and 801 Grand again: "Because the caucuses represent the first hint of the 2008 election year's political mood, the trend among independents is a warning to Republicans about the general election," Beaumont writes.
Says former RNC chairman Ken Mehlman: "It seems to me the smart strategy is to worry, because if you're worried, you can take steps to fix it."
Now it's time to toss away the spin and the spreadsheets: All campaigns can do is try to execute the plans they've (hopefully) spent months putting in place. "The persuasive power of rhetoric was suddenly yielding in importance to the availability of baby sitters to help people get to the caucuses," the AP's Calvin Woodward and Mike Glover report.
"Campaigns were ready with snow shovels if needed, and used the phone and Facebook online to encourage voters."
A tiny snapshot of the action, from Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla: "The campaign has 5,000 drivers to help voters turn out. It also bought more than 600 snow-shovels and delivered salt to field offices to clear driveways and precinct sidewalks, said Teresa Vilmain, Clinton's Iowa state director. Obama's campaign is offering rides and organizing pizza parties."
And we'll miss Iowa in part because . . . where else does the cast of characters include a woman who dresses her dog up like George Washington and claims he is an independent voter at heart, and a man who sells wedding ring to pay for a 40-foot bus called "The Huckabeast" so he can drive from Kentucky to support Huckabee? ABC's Jennifer Parker has the tale.
Check out the campaign schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
Also in the news:
The Washington Post's Dan Balz casts the Democratic battle as less a war over ideology than over how to win.
"The candidacies of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards represent a set of choices about the tone, style and generational image that Democrats, hungry to return to power, conclude will put them in the best position to wage a general-election campaign," he writes.
Adam Nagourney's New York Times take focuses on the rise of the economy as an issue for Democrats -- and the fading of Iraq.
"Even though polls show that Iowa Democrats still consider the war in Iraq the top issue facing the country, the war is becoming a less defining issue among Democrats nationally, and it has moved to the back of the stage in the rush of campaign rallies, town hall meetings and speeches that are bringing the caucus competition to an end," he writes.
"Instead, candidates are being asked about, and are increasingly talking about, the mortgage crisis, rising gas costs, health care, immigration, the environment and taxes."
The Wall Street Journal's Jackie Calmes and Amy Schatz see the caucuses through the populist lens of Huckabee and Edwards.
"Mr. Huckabee's campaign represents a new challenge to the historically business-friendly Republican Party, and so far none of his rivals have picked up his rhetoric. But Mr. Edwards is tapping into a long tradition of Democrats' receptivity to working-class appeals, and his main competitors are scrambling to echo the populism as economic anxiety has intensified among voters."
As the candidates already know, this is the most wired election we've ever had. An ABC News/Facebook survey "finds the Internet rivaling newspapers as one of Americans' top two sources of news about the presidential election. It's also the only election news source to show growth, doubling since 2000," ABC Polling Director Gary Langer writes.
"It's a group with the size and clout to change the way election politics happen in America," Langer writes.
"Seventy-three percent of adults now go online, the most in polls since the dawn of the Internet age. Forty percent use the Internet specifically for news and information about politics and the election, surpassing the previous high, 35 percent in a 2004 survey."
Columnist Robert Novak puts his predictions in writing (try getting that out of 10 different pundits): He pegs the GOP order at Romney, Huckabee, Thompson, and McCain; for the Democrats, Obama, Edwards, Clinton (3rd!), Richardson.
Washington Post columnist David Broder urges us to wait for New Hampshire before making bold assertions about the race. "The outcome of Iowa's first-in-the-nation voting is skewed by two big factors. The turnout is ridiculously small, barely 20 percent of the eligible voters. And those who choose to caucus are hardly representative of the population as a whole."
The Los Angeles Times' Scott Martelle bids a (slightly premature) farewell to the Democratic second tier: Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Joe Biden, and Sen. Chris Dodd. "If only one of them were running for the Democratic presidential nomination, it might be a different-looking race," Martelle writes.
One Friday storyline for this Thursday: McCain, addressing concerns about his age (71), says he's only looking four years into the future. "If I said that I was running for eight years, I'm not sure that would be a vote-getter," McCain said in New Hampshire, per the Union Leader's Greta Cuyler.
Looking even further ahead, to Michigan (primary to be held on the faraway date of Jan. 15), McCain picks up the endorsement of the Detroit News: "He has broad appeal to the middle of the electorate, offering hope that the bitter partisan divisions that dominate Washington would diminish under a McCain presidency. He is a conservative who has worked across the aisle throughout his career to push for common-sense solutions -- most recently with pragmatic approaches to immigration and global warming."
Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., is trying to get back into the game on -- what else? -- national security. Giuliani "called for an increase in the size of the U.S. military, including the deployment of 10,000 more American troops in Afghanistan," per the Union Leader's Clynton Namuo.
Rudy's got a new ad up, too, talking terrorism and featuring "Osama Bin Laden, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the recently assassinated former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto to drive home the presence of those dangers," ABC's Jan Simmonds writes.
The New York Times' Michael Cooper: "The campaign's heightened focus on terrorism and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, comes as Mr. Giuliani has been slipping in the polls and found himself sidelined from the political scene by his decision not to compete fully in the Iowa caucuses on Thursday."
It wouldn't be a big day in politics without at least one dirty trick. Time's Michael Scherer has the details: "In recent days, at least two evangelical pastors who are personally supporting Mike Huckabee received anonymous mailings warning that their churches risk sanction by the Internal Revenue Service if they become too involved in politics. The pastors said that the letters, one of which is notable for exaggerated punctuation and a spelling mistake, appeared aimed at preventing church leaders from encouraging congregants to turn out on caucus night."
ABC's Jake Tapper reports that Obama placed at least one advertisement on Drudge -- hardly a way to kiss and make up with the Netroots. Said campaign spokesman Bill Burton: "Even if it's true, it wasn't intentional, the site isn't on the approved list of sites we advertise on."
What does he know about timing? Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., used the day before the caucuses to blast the presidential candidates -- and wants us to know, he means "all of them." "Don't say, 'O.K., Bloomberg's criticizing A, B or C' on either side,'' he said, per The New York Times' Diane Cardwell. "It's all of them, and I think that's the frustration you see among a lot of independently minded people from both sides and the middle of the aisle."
"We are fired up and we are ready to go." -- Sen. Hillary Clinton -- yes, Clinton, not Obama.
"This is the last stop of my campaign . . . until the GENERAL election." -- Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M.
"The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." -- Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., quoting Mark Twain (with attribution).
"As you may know, 'caucus' is a Greek word meaning 'the only day anyone pays attention to Iowa.' " -- Jay Leno, back in time for a final crack at Iowa's expense.
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A reminder: On Saturday, back-to-back presidential debates -- sponsored by ABC News, Facebook and WMUR-TV -- will be held at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. Republicans will debate from 7-8:30 pm ET and Democrats will follow from approximately 8:45-10:15 pm ET. The two 90-minute debates, moderated by ABC's Charlie Gibson with questions from WMUR anchor and political director Scott Spradling, will air in primetime on the ABC Television Network.