By Michael D. Shear and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 3, 2008
DES MOINES, Jan. 2 -- The presidential candidates made their final appeals to voters Wednesday in the earliest-starting and most expensive campaign in Iowa history, fanning out across the state in search of a victory and crucial momentum headed into a front-loaded primary season.
With the competitions in both parties still too close to call, the leading candidates raced between colleges and small towns to make their last pitches, well aware that the contests would be decided by the lavish turnout operations they spent millions of dollars and much of the past year building.
Republican Mitt Romney flew two dozen reporters across Iowa for a series of events, ending a hyper-organized Hawkeye State effort that is now threatened by Mike Huckabee's unconventional campaign. "It's kind of like, you know, you can't wait," Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, told a rally in Bettendorf. "Maybe it's like Christmas morning and you want to run down and open the present and see what you got and hope it's not a lump of coal."
On a bitterly cold Midwestern day, Democratic front-runners Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama closed out their year-long debate on experience vs. change. The three are running even in the polls after a contest that began with Obama a virtual unknown, Edwards coming off a second-place finish here in 2004 and Clinton having major institutional advantages.
All of the candidates exhibited exhaustion and a bit of desperation -- the natural outcomes of a presidential campaign that began earlier and with more intensity than ever before but one that has not produced an obvious front-runner on either side.
After two brief morning events, Huckabee flew to Hollywood to tape an appearance on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." The former Arkansas governor sparred with Leno, telling jokes and explaining his improbable come-from-behind candidacy. "People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with, rather than the guy that laid them off," he said.
Not to be outdone by Huckabee, Clinton taped a cameo appearance on the "Late Show With David Letterman," taking her message of experience beyond Iowa's borders -- yet not leaving the state for a moment to do so.
But even as they closed out their Iowa campaigns, some of the candidates began turning their attention to the East Coast, where New Hampshire's primary will take place five days later -- an unprecedented schedule that has accelerated the election and confounded political predictions.
At Bettendorf Middle School on Iowa's eastern edge, Romney singled out Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), not his chief Iowa rival Huckabee, as his campaign braces for a brutal but brief contest in New Hampshire, where McCain has surged to a tie for first place in recent polls. Romney plans a 3 a.m. rally in Portsmouth on Friday to begin his effort there.
"With regards to Senator McCain, I think he was just wrong to vote against the Bush tax cuts twice," Romney told a group of about 75 students and parents. "He continues to defend that vote. He continues to believe it was the right thing to vote no on the Bush tax cuts, despite the fact that the Bush tax cuts helped working families, helped people meet their obligations."
Obama, likewise, took the opportunity to tweak his message for New Hampshire, sharpening his cross-party pitch to Republicans and independents and framing it as part of an electoral strategy that could deliver the White House to Democrats in November.
"There are all kinds of Republicans and independents outside Washington who have also been disappointed, who can also be part of a coalition for change," the senator from Illinois told a crowd of 1,500 in Coralville on Wednesday. "And that's how we're going to build a working majority."
Obama rallied large crowds across the state with hour-long stump speeches that were partly motivational, urging people to caucus, and partly inspirational, saying he is the only Democratic candidate able to deliver the change that voters say they crave.
"They say a lot of them . . . never show up. Are you gonna prove them wrong?" Obama said to cheers from a crowd filled with young people and independent voters. "I can't hear you. Are you gonna prove them wrong?"
Wrapping up her campaigning, Clinton continued her pursuit of newcomers to the process by targeting three kinds of voters: committed supporters, precinct captains in charge of mobilizing turnout, and undecideds. The Clinton campaign said that about 40 percent of her precinct captains have either not attended caucuses in the past or have not done so in recent elections.
"You don't run for office to feed your ego, you don't run for office to get your name in the headlines, you run for office to help other people," the senator from New York told a crowd of about 1,000 in Cedar Rapids.
Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, ended 36 hours of nonstop campaigning with a rally in Des Moines on Wednesday night that featured singer John Mellencamp.
Meanwhile, on the Republican side, McCain and former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) each held smaller events in the state on Wednesday, while former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani flew from Florida, where he has been campaigning, to New Hampshire. Ron Paul continued to barrage Iowans with television commercials, spending some of the $18 million he raised, mostly online. Democratic Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson campaigned vigorously, each hoping for a showing that might give them momentum to stay in the race.
In his final speeches Wednesday, Romney stuck to a script he has honed for more than three years: He argued that he has the managerial experience and a conservative philosophy that will unite the Republican Party's economic, social and foreign policy conservatives.
"I want to strengthen America. I want to strengthen our homes and our families with good health care, with great schools and great values," he said in Bettendorf. "I want to strengthen that economy by keeping our taxes down, by trading around the world on a level playing field and ending the challenge of illegal immigration, while protecting legal immigration. And I also want to strengthen our military."
In person, Romney is relentlessly positive, believing that Iowa voters want an optimistic message about the future rather than rhetoric about the challenges the country faces.
But his television commercials and interviews in the past few weeks have been sharply negative toward Huckabee's record. One ad still playing on the Iowa airwaves Wednesday accused Huckabee of not fighting methamphetamine use and of commuting or pardoning more than 1,000 criminals.
Campaigning in Mason City in northern Iowa, Huckabee told supporters that "we're on the verge of doing something really significant. I'm looking forward to being with you for a victory lap tomorrow night."
At a Tuesday night rally before the final day of campaigning, Huckabee packed more than 1,500 people into a ballroom in West Des Moines to hear from actor Chuck Norris and to see Huckabee play the bass guitar.
Huckabee's campaign, which is also beginning to prepare for a race in New Hampshire that will not include a ready base of evangelicals, is running an ad there touting his support for tax cuts but not airing a spot called "Values" that emphasizes his record on opposing abortion. An ad earlier this year touting him as a "Christian leader" also did not appear in the Granite State.
As the candidates sprinted for the finish line, there was an unmistakable intensity gap between the parties.
In Coralville, near the University of Iowa, about 1,500 Iowans packed into a hotel ballroom on Wednesday afternoon for Obama, with 100 and counting filling an overflow room. Meanwhile, Clinton wooed 1,000 in nearby Cedar Rapids.
The Republican candidates had far smaller crowds. Romney, for example, spoke to about 75 people at an elementary school and then held a rally in a Cedar Rapids airport with about 50 supporters.
But the campaign will be decided on the ground.
The Clinton campaign has distributed more than 600 snow shovels to prepare for a potential weather surprise Thursday night. It has delivered bushels of salt to its field offices in case of ice. And about 4,500 people are ready to drive others to caucus sites, said Iowa state director Teresa Vilmain.
Romney's campaign made 25,000 telephone calls from the state headquarters on Wednesday, hoping to blunt Huckabee's impassioned support with a superior organization designed to make sure his voters show up at their designated caucus.
And for those Iowans who did not leave the warmth of their homes because of the single-digit temperatures, the campaigns barraged them with recorded telephone messages so they didn't feel left out.
Anne Wiskerchen, a communications specialist in Cedar Rapids, reported the following: "My officemate just called her home answering machine, and 27 of the 28 messages were from political candidates. Craziness!"
Kelly Shriver Kolln, an independent from Cedar Rapids, said she received five calls from campaigns on Wednesday morning -- from Paul, from the Iowa attorney general endorsing Obama, from Romney and from business publisher Steve Forbes on behalf of Giuliani. An actual person called on Romney's behalf, too.
Kolln said she suspects the campaigns that offer voters a ride to their caucus locations could prove influential.
"If you're getting a ride, you may have that candidate in mind. . . . The weather is horrible here. To me, that's money well spent." As for Kolln, she says if she can get a babysitter for caucus night, she will walk in uncommitted and make her decision on the spot.
Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr. and Shailagh Murray in Iowa, washingtonpost.com producer Ed O'Keefe in Iowa, and Matthew Mosk in Washington contributed to this report.