2008 presidential hopefuls offer last pitches for Iowa

The leading presidential contenders made closing arguments for their candidacies and against their opponents in weekend interviews with USA TODAY as the opening Iowa caucuses approach Thursday. The contests remain extraordinarily close — and critically important — in both major parties.

Republican Mike Huckabee, essentially tied with Mitt Romney in statewide polls, questioned his rival's integrity and credibility. Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, also locked in a dead heat, argued each was best able to deliver the change voters want.

The rhetoric was particularly pointed in the GOP.

Huckabee called Romney's attacks desperate. "I could save a kid from drowning in the river and Romney would get me for polluting the river by not bodily washing off before jumping in," the former Arkansas governor said.

Romney said a tough and tightening race was part of "the nature of politics." The former Massachusetts governor is airing TV ads attacking Huckabee in Iowa and Arizona Sen. John McCain in New Hampshire.

Nine presidential hopefuls crisscrossed Iowa Sunday — attending church services, doing TV interviews and stumping at rallies in high school gyms — in a final push for the contest that is likely to reshape the race, boosting the winners and damaging the also-rans.

"The bounce and free media you get from early victories, history shows, is very important," McCain said. "Look, when you win, the money comes in."

To hear their final arguments, USA TODAY sought interviews with the eight candidates who have double-digit support in the latest national USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. The three Democrats and four of the Republicans accepted. Former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, a Republican, declined.

Edwards, who has staked his presidential ambitions on Iowa, said he was benefiting as voters began to compare him, Clinton and Obama. "The glitz associated with a couple of the Democratic candidates … has waned considerably as we get to a serious judgment about who should be president," Edwards said.

Clinton said she was "not asking voters to take me on a leap of faith," an implicit jab at Obama.

And without naming names, Obama said some "in other quarters" were pushing the argument that the United States wasn't ready to elect a black president. "I don't think that's where the American people are," he said, citing his strength in national surveys.

A McClatchy/MSNBC Poll of likely caucusgoers taken Wednesday through Friday showed Edwards at 24%, Clinton at 23% and Obama at 22% — within the survey's margin of error of +/—5 percentage points. That reflects a gain for Edwards since early December.

Among Republicans, Romney had rebounded to 27%; Huckabee dipped to 23%. Thompson was at 14% and McCain at 13%. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and Texas Rep. Ron Paul were each at 5%.

Giuliani, who leads the field in national polls, said he wasn't worried about a poor showing, likening the contest to a ballgame. "You're not going to win in the first inning or the second inning," he said.

The competition is intense now but Clinton predicts it will be settled, at least for Democrats, when 22 states hold contests in February. "I think it's over Feb. 5," she said. "It's probably likely that the nomination will be wrapped up by midnight West Coast time."