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Iowa races are entering the home stretch

Times Staff Writers

After a pause for Christmas, presidential contenders resume their blitz across Iowa today, scraping and scuffling in contests that have grown tighter and more unpredictable as the first balloting of 2008 nears.

On the Democratic side, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina are running neck and neck and neck, with the rest of the field fighting to squeeze past one of them to finish third.

Among Republicans, former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts are battling it out, while the race for third is a toss-up among several contenders.

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The closeness of the state’s caucus contests increases the import of these final days -- and any verbal misstep, breakthrough TV ads or crystallizing moment on the campaign trail -- in what already have been exceptionally fluid races. Iowans will caucus on Jan. 3.

“We’ve never had anything like this,” said David R. Nagle, a former congressman and past chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, who has been tracking the caucuses since they gained national attention in 1972. “If you can find a three-headed coin, flip it. That’s about the best projection I can give you.”

While the approach of Christmas kept the candidates on relatively good behavior, especially in their warm-and-fuzzy TV spots, few expected their reluctance to attack to last.

“It’s probably going to be harder for them to restrain themselves,” said Peverill Squire, professor of political science at the University of Iowa. “They’ll be trying to draw more comparisons and contrasts among themselves.”

With just eight full days of campaigning left, Christmas amounted to little more than an extended dinner break for many of the White House candidates and their harried staffers.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who has taken up temporary residence in Des Moines, had the state to himself and spent part of the day ice-skating with his family and members of his campaign team.

But his monopoly ends this morning.

Clinton and her husband, former President Clinton, will join former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and his wife, Christie, in the Vilsacks’ hometown in the southeast part of the state before the Clintons part ways to stump separately. Another Democrat, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, begins his day in southwest Iowa, while Obama threads his way through the north. And Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware plans a rally tonight in Des Moines.

On the Republican side, Huckabee plans to start his day with a pheasant hunt in southern Iowa, and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee will resume his bus tour a few towns over.

In all, eight candidates and two of their spouses will storm the state, according to the Iowa Democratic Party, which tracks campaign events by contenders from both major parties.

But that’s just a start.

Between now and the caucuses, every major presidential hopeful will visit Iowa, including three Republicans -- Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas -- who have spent comparatively little time here.

“The Republicans are starting to see you really can’t skip Iowa,” said Chuck Laudner, executive director of the state GOP.

New Hampshire holds the nation’s first primary, Jan. 8. Most analysts believe a candidate has to finish among the top three in either state to seriously compete in the contests that follow.

Edwards and Romney planned to campaign in New Hampshire today before resuming a full schedule of Iowa events Thursday.

The onslaught in Iowa reflects its centrality to the presidential contest, despite the efforts of politicians in more populous states -- including Michigan, Florida and California -- to cut it down to size by moving up their contests to January and early February. All that Iowa’s detractors managed to do was to elevate the state’s significance and add uncertainly by pushing the campaign into the heart of the holiday season.

“This is really a caucus like no other,” said Jeff Link, a longtime Iowa Democratic strategist and Edwards supporter. “Everyone feels they need to get in as many visits and events as they can between the 26th and the 3rd because it’s close. Everyone’s going to try to do everything they can in these closing days.”

The caucuses are precinct-level meetings that are the first step Iowa uses in allocating delegates to the summer national nominating conventions. But as the first gauge of voter sentiment, following a campaign that has raged for months, the results have assumed extraordinary political importance.

The caucuses have turned out to be Iowa’s most competitive since 1988 -- perhaps ever.

Then, as now, there was no incumbent, resulting in hotly contested races on both sides. But in 1988 -- when the caucuses were held Feb. 8 -- there were clear front-runners in the polls: then-Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas on the Republican side and then-Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri in the Democratic race. Both held on to win as expected.

By contrast, Clinton, Edwards and Obama have all led in the Iowa polls and enjoyed front-runner status at different stages of the Democratic race The latest surveys, taken in aggregate, show the three just a few percentage points apart, with their support ranging from the low 20s for Edwards to the high 20s for Obama and Clinton.

“It seems there’s a rotation among them,” Nagle said. “One will have a good day and seem to surge ahead, then another will have a good day, and then another. They seem to reach a plateau and no one can break away from anyone else.”

On the Republican side, the race held steady for most of the year, with the richly funded Romney enjoying a comfortable lead. Huckabee, a favorite of Christian conservatives, climbed slowly through the summer and fall, then roared past Romney within the last month. The question is whether the Huckabee campaign, which has operated hand-to-mouth until recently, has the voter-turnout organization to capitalize on his strong showing in surveys.

An aggregate of surveys shows Huckabee’s support in the low 30s, Romney in the low 20s and the rest of the field much further back.

But the Republican race for third could prove nearly as consequential. McCain, Thompson and Giuliani are all looking to avoid an embarrassing finish that could harm their chances in New Hampshire and beyond.

mark.barabak@latimes.com

seema.mehta@latimes.com

Barabak reported from San Francisco and Mehta from Des Moines.


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