All eyes on Iowa as race tightens

Caucuses could winnow the field for New Hampshire

December 30, 2007|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Reporter

NEVADA, Iowa -- Voters in Iowa will start choosing the next president this week, but the nomination fights in both parties aren't likely to end on caucus night.

Tight contests are boosting the chances for some opening surprises as the notoriously unpredictable Iowans, after closely studying the candidates for months, finally make their picks. Even campaign veterans are excited.

"What a race! We've never seen one like this," says Ed Rollins, who directed Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election drive. He recently re-entered the fray as campaign chairman for Mike Huckabee, the Cinderella candidate of 2008, who is favored to win the Republican caucuses Thursday night.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, trying to become the first woman nominated by a major party, appears to have pulled marginally ahead in a three-way race with Sen. Barack Obama, who would be the first African-American to head a party ticket, and John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee.

But if the Democratic result in Iowa is as close as the polls have been for months, the winner may have a hard time claiming a decisive victory.

Rolling across the state's frigid snow-covered prairie this weekend, the former first lady's blue campaign tour bus advertises the theme of her closing push. Big letters emblazoned on the sides announce that it's "Time to pick a president."

Iowa's caucuses played that influential role in the past, lifting Jimmy Carter and President Bush and his father all the way to the White House (in 1992, an Iowa senator's candidacy led Bill Clinton and other Democrats to skip the state). In 2004, Iowa proved pivotal again, with John Kerry sweeping to the nomination after he upset Howard Dean.

Changes in the primary schedule have pushed the caucuses into New Year's week, the earliest date ever. That hasn't diminished the excitement, at least among Democrats, who expect a record turnout. Reflecting the sharp differences between the parties, downbeat Republicans are predicting much more modest participation.

The new campaign calendar, designed to give other states a piece of the early action this year and diminish the impact of the opening tests in Iowa and New Hampshire, has had the opposite effect. Candidates have spent far more time and money in Iowa than ever, including more than $35 million on TV advertising, at least triple the previous record.

But several factors could combine to make this week's caucuses less definitive. Instead of giving the winners enough momentum to go all the way, Iowa voters may play their more traditional role: winnowing a few candidates in and others out.

On the Republican side, Iowa is likely to set the stage for New Hampshire's primary, five days later. With at least four candidates given a shot at the nomination, the race is more wide open than at any time in recent decades.

"It's definitely new for us," says Rollins. "We usually have someone who is an heir apparent."

No incumbent president or vice president is running, for the first time in more than half a century, and President Bush's unpopularity has Republican voters searching for someone to take the party in a new direction, polls show.

An emerging battle between religious conservative voters and establishment Republicans could break into the open if Huckabee wins Iowa. As much as half of the Republican caucus vote could be cast by evangelicals, who announced their arrival as a force in primary politics 20 years ago when they helped television evangelist Pat Robertson to a second-place caucus finish.

Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, is running as a "Christian leader," but he claims his recent surge in state and national opinion surveys proves that he's broadened his support beyond religious. Either that, he says, or "evangelicals are the only ones answering polls right now."

The former Arkansas governor is counting on evangelical churches and home-schooling networks, rather than a conventional grass-roots organization. He drew an unusually large crowd of at least 1,000 people to a religiously themed rally in Des Moines the other night, underscoring the potential of that approach.

Huckabee's popularity is threatening to ruin the early-state strategy of Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who has invested heavily on TV ads in Iowa and New Hampshire. The wealthy venture capitalist has put at least $17 million of his own money into the race, but his candidacy might not survive losses in both states.

Romney has been attacking Huckabee for weeks, portraying him as soft on crime and illegal immigration. Yesterday, in a sign that the attacks may be cutting into Huckbee's support, the Arkansan responded sharply, calling Romney's charge dishonest and questioning whether he could be trusted as president.

"If he wants to show contrast, let's do it," Huckabee told reporters at a campaign stop in Indianola. "Enough is enough." He refused to answer when asked if he'd vote for his rival if Romney became the Republican nominee.

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