Caucus Countdown: The Importance of Iowa

With one month to go before the 2008 Iowa caucuses, the leading contenders for both the Democratic and Republican nominations are running neck and neck in the state and battling for the support of Iowa voters.

The first-in-the-nation Jan. 3 caucuses are poised to shake up what has been an extraordinary presidential race — one that started earlier than any other, and with more intensity and more money being spent on both sides.

"This is clearly the biggest race we've seen in years," said David Yepsen, longtime political columnist for The Des Moines Register.

Statistical Dead Heat

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The leading Democratic presidential contenders are locked in a three-way battle in Iowa with Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois the preferred choice of 28 percent of likely caucus-goers, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton at 25 percent support and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards at 23 percent, according to a Des Moines Register poll released this weekend.

The Des Moines Register poll closely resembles a November ABC News/Washington Post poll that found Obama and Clinton in a statistical dead heat, with Edwards following closely behind.

Both polls indicate a wide gap between the top three Democratic presidential hopefuls and the remainder of the field.

Democrats Sharpen Strategy, Rhetoric

With an influential Iowa caucus win at stake, the candidates are pouring time, money and resources into Iowa, and sharpening their rhetoric against one another.

Clinton's campaign has dispatched hundreds of staffers and volunteers to the state, and has organized a get-out-the-vote team to urge people to the caucuses.

The campaign has increased Clinton's appearances in the state and those of her husband, the popular former President Clinton.

This week the campaign unveils a "Take Your Buddy to Caucus" push to urge more people to get involved on Jan.3.

"We know we have a lot of work to do to get people out to vote and to make sure they stand in front of their friends and neighbors and caucus for Hillary," said Mark Daley, Clinton's Iowa communications director.

The campaign has also produced a humorous "caucusing is easy" video featuring Hillary Clinton attempting to sing the national anthem and Bill Clinton eating a cheeseburger to illustrate that singing and exercising may be hard, but caucusing is easy.

Getting Out the Vote

The Obama campaign is also marshalling resources in the Hawkeye State, launching an interactive online caucus center on its Iowa Web site, explaining the caucus process and directing voters to their local caucus site.

Obama's Iowa effort is getting some celebrity star power Saturday when Oprah Winfrey campaigns with Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

"He's going to spend more time in the state and talk about his vision for bringing change to Washington, D.C.," said Josh Earnest, Obama's Iowa spokesman.

In a move that is legal, but politically risky, Obama's campaign has distributed 50,000 brochures on Iowa college campuses telling college students they can caucus for him even if they aren't from Iowa.

Many students who attend college in Iowa are from Obama's neighboring home state of Illinois — something that could give Obama an advantage considering his strong support among young voters.

The Clinton campaign angrily denounced the strategy this weekend.

"The Iowa caucus should be for Iowans," it said.

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