With uncertainty the only sure thing, the fight for Iowa hurtled into its final stretch on Saturday amid a blizzard of TV ads, speeches, phone calls and door-knocking by a presidential field that, more than ever, has staked its hopes on this snowy state.
The spectacle of two wide-open races fueled by record spending -- even in a place that thrives on political competition -- was unprecedented.
From sunrise until deep into the dark, nearly a dozen contenders waged the political equivalent of hand-to-hand combat, trading jabs from the stage and across the airwaves while touting themselves as the one, true champion of change.
"We need to turn the page on our politics," Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois told audiences at several stops. "We need to stand for change that America can believe in."
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York countered that she alone had the experience "to make the kind of changes America desperately needs."
On the Republican side, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney promised that he would transform Washington just as he remade businesses and rescued the 2002 Winter Olympics. "I brought change to almost every organization that I've been part of," he said.
With Democrats Clinton, Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in a three-way tie in polls and Romney battling to reclaim the Republican lead against former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the candidates stormed Iowa as if their political survival was at stake -- which it may be for some.
Foot soldiers staffed phone banks and trudged door-to-door -- sometimes sharing the sidewalk with workers from opposing campaigns -- as they labored to sway the undecided and coax supporters to come out Thursday night, when Iowans will cast the first ballots of the 2008 campaign.
The caucuses here will be followed by New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary five days later -- Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona had that state almost to himself Saturday -- and then by a series of contests that will climax on Feb. 5 when 22 states, including California, hold what amounts to a national referendum.
On Saturday, however, the focus was almost entirely on the farm towns and urban centers of Iowa, from Sioux City in the northwest to Burlington, 350 miles away, in the southeast. In all, 10 candidates staged more than 40 events across the state, beneath a bonnet of blue sky that brought temperatures into the 20s and offered a welcome break between snowstorms.
In many ways the scene was familiar, with Iowa once more the center of the political galaxy. But even veteran caucus-watchers said that in 30-plus years, they had never seen a contest like the one this year. (And not just because it was waged, unremittingly, through the holiday season.)
Candidates and outside groups have spent tens of millions of dollars, obliterating spending records, and together they have broadcast tens of thousands of TV ads. (On Saturday during one 6 a.m. Des Moines newscast, which was dominated by campaign coverage, virtually every spot was a political commercial.)
For all that effort, however, the Democratic and Republican races remained tight.
An aggregate of the latest Iowa polls showed Clinton with 30% support, Edwards 27% and Obama 26%, a statistical dead heat. On the Republican side, the aggregate showed Huckabee with 31% support to Romney's 29%, also effectively a tie. Several GOP candidates were vying for third place.
But polling is notoriously difficult given the quirky nature of the caucuses. A combination town hall and kaffeeklatsch, the 1,784 precinct-level gatherings require intense organization on the part of candidates and a deep commitment on the part of supporters. With forecasters predicting temperatures below freezing, candidates urged voters not to shrink from the opportunity.
"What an extraordinary privilege to be an Iowan and to have probably more to do with electing the next leader of the free world than anybody else on earth," Obama told an audience of several hundred Saturday night in Mount Pleasant. "Please take advantage of that privilege."
In a time of discontent -- amid war, high gas prices and a miserable housing market -- the buzzword of the political season has been change. But what that amounts to, and who can best deliver it, is the subject of fierce dispute, particularly on the Democratic side.
Clinton argued Saturday that her background "from Day One" made her uniquely suited to be president. She recounted her work on children's issues and healthcare and as an informal overseas ambassador during her husband's White House administration.
"Who is tested and proven to be able to win against whatever the Republicans decide to do?" Clinton asked the crowd that filled a high school gymnasium in the town of Clinton. "I believe it is imperative that we have a president who understands exactly what is going to wait for him or her in the Oval Office. "
Obama parried, without naming names, that wisdom and Washington experience were not necessarily the same. And he swiped back at her husband, who recently suggested that a vote for Obama -- elected to the Senate in 2004 -- amounted to a roll of the dice.
"The real gamble in this election is having the same old folks do the same old things and somehow expect a different result," Obama told a crowd packed into the Catfish Bend Casino in Burlington. "That's the definition of insanity: You keep on doing the same things over and over again and expect different results."
Edwards weighed in with a pledge that anyone who had lobbied for a corporation or foreign government would be forbidden from serving in an Edwards administration. He also scoffed at Obama's contention that he could bring corporations to heel through the power of persuasion.
"People say to me they want me to sit at a table and negotiate with these people?" Edwards said to an enthusiastic crowd of about 1,000 in a Des Moines high school cafeteria. "Never. It will never happen. We're going to stand up to these people."
Things were even nastier on the Republican side, where Romney has taken to the airwaves attacking Huckabee.
Huckabee returned fire during a lunchtime appearance and news conference in Indianola. "It's one thing to attack us on our records," he said. "It's another thing to make it up."
Asked by a reporter whether he would vote for Romney if he won the Republican nomination, Huckabee said he could not support a Democrat over a Republican but pointedly declined to answer directly.
For his part, Romney largely ignored his GOP rivals on the stump, offering his promise of change. Speaking to about 75 people at a community center in Ottumwa, Romney said: "If there's ever been a time we need a change in Washington, it's now."
He mentioned his work as a business consultant and leader of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and his term as governor, saying he rescued Massachusetts from fiscal troubles by holding the line on spending. "I think I could do the same thing to Washington: Bring change," he said.
The message, however, is a tricky one for Republicans, said Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz.
"Democrats can talk about the kind of change that Democratic voters want," Abramowitz said. "But Republicans have a dilemma: How do you appeal to those core conservatives who are generally not as dissatisfied with things while, at the same time, appealing to the broader desire for change?"
Another twist is the way the two parties seem to have traded roles this election.
The Democrats have waged a fairly straightforward campaign, with a large field of challengers, led by Obama and Edwards, vying to topple the early front-runner, Clinton.
Republicans, by contrast, have shed their hierarchical tradition and watched as a series of candidates have struggled to break free of the pack, with different contenders holding the lead at different times in Iowa, New Hampshire and nationally.
"Democrats are a lot better at chaos than we are," said Republican Dan Schnur, who served as communications director for McCain's 2000 campaign. "We just don't have experience with this. As a result, you see a lot of voters and a lot of activists rushing from one candidate to the other trying to create a more familiar situation with one front-runner and several challengers."
In part, that reflects a broader struggle within the GOP to overcome Bush's low approval ratings, the loss of Congress last year and a split between economic and social conservatives.
The absence of a unity candidate has dampened Republican enthusiasm, as reflected in the crowds Saturday in Iowa. Whereas Clinton, Obama and Edwards appeared before hundreds of people at each stop, the GOP candidates -- including former New York City Rudolph W. Giuliani -- often drew audiences of 100 or fewer.
Terri O'Hara, a middle-school teacher, 57, was one of those who came out Saturday to see Romney in Ottumwa. She likes him, she said, because he seems capable and competent. But, she said, wincing, "I'm not sure if he's really down-to-earth."
She saw Huckabee on Friday and likes the personal connection she felt. But, O'Hara went on, "to be president of the United States is a major league ballgame, and I'm not sure if Huckabee is a major league player."
How will she decide by Thursday? "I've just got to do a little more thinking," she said. "And talking to people."
Times staff writers Maria L. La Ganga, Scott Martelle, Joe Mathews, Seema Mehta, Dan Morain, Peter Wallsten and Aaron Zitner and researcher Nona Yates contributed to this report.