Race’s Round 1 begins in Iowa

DES MOINES, Iowa – The end of the beginning of an exhaustive, expensive and so far inconclusive race for the White House will take shape tonight when Iowans vote in their caucuses in the most wide-open presidential contest since 1952.

The early campaign has been marked by a fierce, frenetic energy in the Democratic contest, with signs that independent voters are gravitating toward them, while the Republican race has lacked a galvanizing message or personality and exhibited a notable lack of embracing President Bush.

Democrats are locked in a three-way struggle among Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois, Hillary Clinton of New York and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, with a trio of other candidates with far longer resumes trailing badly.

Republicans in Iowa are choosing between two fresher faces from the ranks of former governors – Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts – while better-known candidates Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani have largely forsaken the state, though McCain made a caucus-eve visit to suburban Des Moines.

The GOP contest also presents an element of uncertainty with Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, whose Internet-networked campaign has benefited from extraordinary fundraising while connecting a committed, eclectic group of supporters who could impact other contenders.

The outcome in Iowa will hardly be decisive, but it is likely to winnow the lengthy field on both sides. And voters in each party will be using their preferences for president to send a message about the direction they want to see in Washington and the world.

In the end, millions of dollars in TV, radio and direct mail advertisements and millions of hours in phone-banking and door-to-door canvassing will translate into this: some 200,000 people expressing their choice for president in nearly 1,800 precinct caucus sites scattered across Iowa’s 99 counties.

“This caucus is a historic caucus, where both parties have a wide-open race,” said Chuck Laudner, executive director of Iowa’s Republican Party.

By Friday morning, the accelerated presidential nominating process will immediately move to New Hampshire and its leadoff primaries Tuesday. Like pulling the chain attached to the now politically incorrect incandescent light bulb, the presidential stage in Iowa will go dark.

On caucus eve, candidates fanned out across the state and showed lengthy closing TV ads seeking a last boost of support.

Huckabee departed Iowa for Burbank, Calif., to appear on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” as it resumed new broadcasts. Clinton taped some lines for David Letterman’s show, which cut its own deal with striking writers.

Clinton and Obama also each aired two-minute TV spots on evening newscasts across Iowa, speaking directly to potential caucus-goers, while Edwards had a longtime friend in the state, laid off from the now closed Maytag appliance plant in Newton, deliver a one-minute testimonial.

“After all the town meetings, the pie and coffee, it comes down to this: Who is ready to be president and ready to start solving the challenges we face on day one?” Clinton said in her ad. “If you stand with me for one night, I will stand up for you every day as your president.”

Obama, who has promoted a theme of change to counter criticism that he lacks experience, promised in his ad to end the “obscene influence of lobbyists and the politics that values scoring points over making progress.”

“I will carry your voices to the White House and I will fight for you every day I am there,” Obama said.

Edwards relied on Doug Bishop, a former Maytag worker, to give his last TV pitch. Bishop recounted how Edwards “grabbed my 7-year-old son by the hand, he dropped to one knee, and he looked him straight in the eye and he said, ‘I’m going to keep fighting for your daddy’s job.’ “

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