Heading into the final weekend of campaigning before the all-important Iowa caucuses, the presidential candidates ramped up their attacks and stripped down their messages today as a severe snowstorm threatened to cancel campaign events and upset voter turnout calculations.
Trundling through icy Iowa on her well-appointed bus today, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton made the case that times are so perilous, the nation cannot afford an inexperienced president -- a clear swipe at her chief rival, Sen. Barack Obama.
Capping a tour dubbed "Big Challenges, Real Solutions Tour -- Time to Pick a President," Clinton planned to release a taped, two-minute ad statewide on the eve of the caucuses, which are Jan. 3, contending she will be "ready on Day One" to take over the Oval Office based on her experience as First Lady and New York Senator.
In her first stop of the day in Story City, Clinton continued her theme of national security, raising the assassination of Benazir Bhutto while suggesting her rivals were making unrealistic promises.
"As we pick a president, we need someone who is ready on Day One to handle whatever is on that desk and whatever comes in the door," she said before a crowd of several hundred people. "Everybody in this campaign is talking about change. We all want change. ... Well, so do I. Some people think you get change by demanding it, and some think you get change by hoping for it ... I think you get change by working really, really hard for it every single day."
Meanwhile, at a school gym in Williamsburg, Obama sounded an increasingly populist tone, promising voters a way on how "we can tell the lobbyists" that their days are over, and "we can provide tax cuts to working families by taking away the tax breaks to companies that send jobs overseas."
Obama has erased Clinton's lead in New Hampshire and the two are locked in a statistical tie with former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in Iowa.
At some points, the rhetoric was as biting as the weather. In a jab at rival Edwards, Obama unveiled an ad by eight former Edwards supporters who have moved to his camp. Edwards, for his part, questioned Clinton's ability to change a "broken system" that she has been a part of.
"Nobody who takes their money and defends the broken system is going to bring change. And, unfortunately, nobody who thinks we can just sit down and talk them into compromise is going to bring change either," Edwards said, referring to Clinton, at an event in Dubuque.
On the Republican side, former front-runner Mitt Romney, who has already watched his lead vanish in a late surge by Mike Huckabee, struggled to hold his ground in New Hampshire, where Arizona Sen. John McCain was gaining speed.
At stops in snowbound Rock Rapids and Sioux Center in the Republican-heavy northwest corner of Iowa this morning, Romney avoided any talk of his rivals, even as he began airing a fresh ad in New Hampshire that criticized McCain on taxes and immigration.
McCain wasted no time firing back: "If there's any doubt that we're doing well, it's when Mitt Romney starts attacking. He's attacking Huckabee out here in Iowa. I'm familiar with tailspins, and I think he's in one. Look, on the issue of immigration, my position is clear: We have to secure the borders, the borders have to be secured first. As president, I would have the governors in the border states certify that the borders are secure."
With six days to go before Iowans caucus, the candidates crisscrossed slushy roads to reach as many voters as possible. A severe snowstorm forced some events to cancel and reduced crowds to a trickle at others.
As four inches of snow fell in Pella, Huckabee managed to hold a morning event, but so few attended that the campaign also scheduled an afternoon conference call.
In his appearance, Huckabee seemed to link the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to illegal immigration, referencing her death and then claiming that 660 Pakistanis cross U.S. borders illegally each year. "That's a lot of illegals from Pakistan who came into our country," he said. Questioned repeatedly by reporters after the event, Huckabee did not retreat, saying he was trying to "draw a line" for Iowans between events overseas and the problem of immigration at home.
The former Arkansas governor also sought to downplay expectations as he held on to the GOP front-runner spot, arguing that even a second- or third-place finish would qualify as a victory.
Romney, meanwhile, fought to regain his footing, traveling in a Winnebago that he calls the "Mittmobile" with his wife, Ann. She gave a lengthy testimonial at each stop, recalling his moral support when she was battling multiple sclerosis during his time as leader of the Salt Lake City Olympics Committee.
"We don't vote for yesterday, we vote for tomorrow," Romney told a few dozen Iowans at B and L Cafe in Rock Rapids, as a steady snow fell outside on Main Street. He touted his experience with the 2002 Winter Olympics and as governor of Massachusetts.