Democrats Make Last Stump Before Iowa Caucus

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Iowans absorb a final rush of presidential campaign stump speeches by Democratic contenders just hours ahead of making their decisions in the 2008 presidential race. The races in both parties could not be closer. And many Iowans, even in these final hours, are still weighing their options.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Long before this day, plenty of Americans effectively cast their votes in the presidential campaign. They did it with money. They did it with endorsements. They did it through polls. The field is already narrower than it was, but this is the time when voters formally begin to choose.

MONTAGNE: And it starts with the Iowa caucuses. In a moment, we'll report on the Republican race. We begin with a tight race on the Democratic side, where many Iowans are still considering their options.

NPR's David Greene reports.

DAVID GREENE: The candidates spent much of yesterday fanned out across Iowa, but then some made their way to the state capital of Des Moines to hold last big rallies. John Edwards brought rocker John Mellencamp with him to a ballroom in Des Moines. Mellencamp was revving up the crowd by doing some sing-along.

(Soundbite of song, "Our Country")

Mr. JOHN MELLENCAMP (Singer): (Singing) This is our country.

GREENE: Then Edwards told the crowds they have work to do.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina; Presidential Candidate): Go to the caucus. Stand up. Speak out. Change this country. Show what you're made of.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

GREENE: It sounded like a room full of hardcore supporters. But Kathleen Mumborg(ph) said she's still thinking about who to caucus for. She said it will be a game-time decision.

Ms. KATHLEEN MUMBORG: And I've changed three times. I started with Obama. I went to Hillary. I went then back - wait - to Edwards. And now I'm - I don't know where I'm at, but I think John Edwards is going to surprise people tomorrow. I really do.

GREENE: Not far away, Barack Obama landed in town at a high school. A long day of campaigning had taken a toll on his voice.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): To all the young people out here today, the cynics say that you won't turn out, that despite all the sweat and tears that you have put into this campaign, that you will somehow forget to show up.

GREENE: Obama returned to a signature theme that he'll do well if voters believe in themselves and believe they're part of a movement.

Sen. OBAMA: You have the chance to cast a new vision, to set a new direction to this country. Tomorrow, you have the chance to say, yes, we can.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Sen. OBAMA: I believe you will.

GREENE: Ron Faudness(ph) was listening. He said he is planning tonight to start off supporting another Democratic candidate - New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. But if Richardson doesn't have the support to stay alive at his caucus, he'll switch to Obama. He said he likes Obama's message.

Mr. RON FAUDNESS: I believe in his perspective on the world and I support, you know, the ideas that he stands for. The reason I would think of Richardson first is I just look at him as having a model resume for a presidential candidate.

GREENE: And across town at the Iowa Historical Society, a family Americans have known for some time walked out to greet the crowd.

President BILL CLINTON: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you.

GREENE: Bill Clinton came on stage with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton. The former president introduced his wife this way.

Pres. CLINTON: What you really care about in public service and the only thing that matters is whether people are better off when you quit than when you started and whether our children and grandchildren have a better future. If that's your test, this is your candidate - a great president.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

GREENE: Clinton said she's proven she can bring change by setting goals and bringing people together behind her.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): Holding public office is a public trust. And you're supposed to get up every day and not think about how to gratify your own ego, but how to solve the problems that the people you represent have to make their lives better.

GREENE: I asked Barbara Rife(ph) if Clinton's won her over.

Ms. BARBARA RIFE: You know, I'm not sure. I think so though, because I like her attitudes and her ideas on education, being a retired teacher.

GREENE: But Rife said she has considered Democratic candidate Joe Biden. In fact, she's looked at the whole Democratic field and said she'll be happy if any of them wins.

Ms. RIFE: It's funny. I was just - my husband and I were just talking about it the other night. I think I could vote for any one of them.

GREENE: She's more certain about just wanting the caucuses to be over.

Ms. RIFE: It's time. It's time. You know, for Christmas, my son-in-law, the techie, he gave us TiVo and I've been whizzing right through those commercials because I'm tired of them. It's finally here and I'm glad it's here.

GREENE: David Greene, NPR News, Des Moines.

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Iowans Head to Caucuses amid Tight Races

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Audience members at Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee speech. i

Audience members listen to Republican presidential hopeful and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on Wednesday. hide caption

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Audience members at Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee speech.

Audience members listen to Republican presidential hopeful and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on Wednesday.

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A man listens as Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama D-Ill., speaks i

A man listens as Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks at a campaign stop on Wednesday. M. Spencer Green hide caption

itoggle caption M. Spencer Green
A man listens as Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama D-Ill., speaks

A man listens as Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks at a campaign stop on Wednesday.

M. Spencer Green

Presidential hopefuls urged their supporters to turn out and rally fellow Iowans to the caucuses Thursday amid bracing temperatures in the first contests of the 2008 election season.

Iowans, courted for months by candidates, could bring some clarity to the national contest, which heads to New Hampshire in just five days.

Surveys suggested a quarter of likely caucus-goers were still undecided in the final days. Mason City resident Mike Forbes was one of them. Forbes likes former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who was on a barnstorming tour of Iowa on Wednesday, but also checked out Mike Huckabee when the former Arkansas governor spoke in town.

"Actually I could support both those guys real easy," Forbes said.

Candidates in both parties have been crisscrossing the state. That's why a place like Mason City — with just 27,000 residents — drew visits Wednesday from not only Romney and Huckabee, but also GOP contender Fred Thompson.

Romney goes into the caucuses fighting for a win against Huckabee, a man who stood at just 2 percent in the polls in Iowa less than six months ago.

Polls indicate a tight three-way race for Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, reflected in swollen crowds at Democratic venues and expectations of a hectic caucus night.

With the caucuses not beginning until the evening, most candidates filled their Thursday calendar with still more speeches and events.

Obama, an Illinois senator, recommended long johns as he sent people door to door. Clinton served bagels, fruit and coffee to Des Moines volunteers and said of the single-digit temperatures, "I know if you're here from Iowa to help me, this is like, nothing."

Huckabee has drawn support from evangelicals and home-schooling activists, as well as some independent voters such as Florence Cline, who works in a natural food store.

"Actually I was expecting that I would be more attracted to some Democrats," she said. "So it's very unusual that I'm here. I'm intrigued that he's in a rock band, plays bass. He's just a fascinating human being."

Campaigns were ready with snow shovels if needed, and used the phone and Facebook.com to encourage voters. Romney said his campaign made 12,000 calls on Sunday alone.

Clinton and Huckabee appeared on late-night talk shows, a chance to start looking beyond Iowa and endear themselves with a national audience just as the campaign starts to move across the country.

Clinton, feet firmly planted in Iowa, spoke by tape with David Letterman, whose New York-based show settled with striking writers. Huckabee flew to Burbank, Calif., to sit with Jay Leno in the final crucial hours of the Iowa campaign and was unaware when he made the commitment that he'd have to cross a picket line. The former Arkansas governor said he supported the strikers; they called him a scab.

Obama, an at-times stirring orator and the most viable black presidential candidate in history, drew large crowds, yet acknowledged that won't put him over the top unless he can motivate his supporters to come to the caucus meetings.

While Romney and Huckabee battled for the top spot in Iowa, John McCain was also hoping for a strong showing. The Arizona senator had largely ignored Iowa throughout the fall and early winter. But last night he had to push his way through an overflow crowd of supporters at his campaign headquarters outside Des Moines.

"I'm very grateful for you being here. I'm grateful for this expression of support," he said.

"I can tell you we've come a long way since I met the 1,203-pound pig named Big Red at the Iowa State Fair and then enjoyed a pork chop on a stick, followed by a delicious deep fried Twinkie," he said.

Back during fair season over the summer, McCain was all but written off. But he has shown new life in recent polls.

A strong third-place finish in Iowa could give McCain's campaign added momentum when the focus shifts to New Hampshire.

Altogether, 120,000 to 150,000 people were expected to come to the Democratic caucuses and 80,000 to 90,000 to the GOP meetings. Caucuses are held in each of the state's nearly 1,800 precincts and draw anywhere from a few people each in rural areas to hundreds in suburbia.

From NPR's Scott Horsley and The Associated Press

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