"Iowa is the beginning and the ending," one proud politician said recently while musing on the looming presidential vote.
Iowans can be forgiven for having a somewhat inflated sense of their political importance these days. The state's Democrats, after all, were responsible for vetting the field of their party's White House contenders more than nine months ago and vaulting Sen. John F. Kerry on his way to the nomination. Now, with the presidential race nip and tuck in its final stretch, Iowans are among those squarely in the political spotlight.
Polls show the Massachusetts senator and President Bush are statistically tied in the state, leaving it on the short list of battlegrounds and targeted for lavish attention from both campaigns. Both candidates stumped in the state Tuesday in their quest for its seven electoral votes -- Bush in Mason City, near the state's northern border; Kerry in Waterloo, less than 100 miles south. Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, tours a chunk of the state by bus today.
Thanks to its first-in-the-nation caucuses, Iowa is accustomed to the national political spotlight -- just not this late in the election cycle.
The state had been predictably friendly turf for Democratic presidential candidates since 1988. That year, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis claimed 55% of the Iowa vote in his losing campaign -- a better showing than in his home state.
But Democrat Al Gore's victory in 2000 revealed changes in the state's political complexion. Gore won by a mere 4,144-vote margin, or two votes per precinct, as Republican canvassers like to say.
The key to the shift: Nearly two-thirds of the counties won by President Clinton in 1996 went Republican in 2000; most were in rural areas.
Bush's strength in rural areas has become increasingly apparent throughout the upper Midwest, a pattern that has put Wisconsin and Minnesota -- states with liberal traditions far stronger than Iowa's -- in play in this year's campaign.
In these states, the Kerry campaign is banking on a high turnout of supporters in the cities while anticipating tough fights for the suburban vote and losses in small towns and farm communities. In Iowa, that means Democrats hope to pile up votes in Des Moines, Sioux City, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa.
But with about 40% of Iowans living in rural areas and Kerry having spent more than a year building a network during the caucus season, he is trying to hold his own in small-town Iowa.
"I cannot remember a campaign that's been this intense for many years," former state GOP Chairman Michael Mahaffey said.
Rural Iowans tend to be white Protestants who oppose abortion, support fiscally conservative policies and, in many cases, own guns. Even as Democrats enjoyed success in the state -- in 1998, Tom Vilsack became the first Democratic governor in 30 years -- rural Iowans retained their conservative tradition.
Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, said that in recent years, Republicans had benefited from these voters realigning themselves politically "with where they should be -- to the party they are closer to culturally."
Bush's image as a strong leader also serves him well with many Iowans. Brent Hasson, 32, an insurance salesman from Cedar Rapids, said of the president: "I like that Bush takes a stand. There's not a lot of dillydallying around."
And Republicans have successfully adopted a populism long the key to winning votes on the prairie, said Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, who has studied political shifts in the upper Midwest.
"It's about rallying people -- railing against the big power that's threatening the little guy on the farm," Jacobs said.
Experts said a successful pitch to rural Iowans had much to do with establishing an intangible sense of cultural identification, something Bush had achieved and Kerry still struggled with.
Referring to one of the Democrat's favorite recreations, Jacobs said: "That whole windsurfing picture of Kerry isn't helping him any. The limousine liberal image really hurts the Democrats."
Skepticism about Kerry's rural credentials was abundant at a turkey leg stand doing a brisk business last weekend before a University of Iowa football game. Patrons talked less about specific policies than a vague sense that Kerry was not one of their own.
"Bush is more for rural America," said Sandy Stewart, a 50-year-old mother of two who lives on 120 acres outside Iowa City. "I don't think Kerry knows what it is."
Yet Stewart embodies Kerry's hope of making inroads among rural voters. After voting Democratic in the 1990s, she supported Bush in 2000 because she was "impressed with his ideas, and tired of [President] Clinton's lying." She said she admired Bush's relationship with his wife and his morals.
But this year, she's voting for Kerry.
"My biggest thing is the [Iraq] war; somebody's got to get a handle on this," she said, adding she was worried her sons could be drafted. "I cringe at what they have ahead of them."
In most campaigns, concerns about agriculture play a major role with voters in the upper Midwest states. But this year, polls show farm issues are taking a back seat to the war, healthcare and the economy.
Iowa has lost 28,000 jobs in the last four years, many in manufacturing. Many Iowans said they had not seen evidence of an economic turnaround.
"I don't know what it is," said Ryan Newel, a 31-year-old undecided voter from Newton, where he said the local Maytag plant seemed to perennially bleed jobs. "But Democrats just seem to be able to get the economy going again."
Newel is part of the coveted, ever-increasing pool of independent voters in Iowa. Independents account for 40% of the state's registered voters -- a share exceeding the figure for Democrats or Republicans.
Jacobs attributes the rise to a new generation of voters being less tied to major-party traditions.
It's those independents who have been the focus of perhaps the fiercest ground game in Iowa's political history. Democrats and affiliated groups spent millions on registration drives and increased efforts to get their supporters to cast absentee ballots.
Republicans also have encouraged early voting, but admit they're far behind Democrats on the absentee requests. They say they're focusing on a final 72-hour push to rally their supporters to the polls on election day.
As of Monday, more than 360,000 absentee ballots had been requested in Iowa. In 2000, about 270,000 Iowans voted absentee.
"Elvis voted absentee," deadpanned Tony Corletti, 44, a Linn County real estate agent who regularly dons Elvis attire when attending University of Iowa football games.
Corletti recently cast an absentee ballot for Kerry, a tribute to the persistence of Democrats and a sign of a partisan intensity expected to increase on both sides as the Nov. 2 election approached.
"I only voted absentee because they kept hammering me over and over," he said. "They called and came by during football games. They were relentless -- almost a little bit annoying. I did it so they'd leave me alone."