The first contest of the U.S. presidential election campaign comes this week in the midwestern state of Iowa, where Democrats and Republicans will hold caucuses Thursday night. VOA correspondent Paula Wolfson reports, candidates from both major parties are hoping for an early victory.
Iowa marks the beginning of the state-by-state process the two leading political parties in the United States use to choose their presidential nominees.
A win in Iowa could provide crucial momentum in an election year when many states are holding primaries and caucuses earlier than ever.
There is no clear favorite on either the Democratic or Republican side in Iowa. And in the days leading up to the caucuses - town meetings where voters declare their preferences - the campaigning has become intense.
Candidates are traveling across the snowy highways of Iowa seeking support. They are also making their case in local television ads, and in nationally broadcast interviews.
During an appearance Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, Republican Mike Huckabee took on rival Mitt Romney. The two are locked in a tight race in Iowa, and, in recent days, Romney has been attacking Huckabee's record as governor of the state of Arkansas.
"I don't know what kind of effect it [attacks] has," said Huckabee. "People in Iowa, I think, like a positive campaign. But the relentless attacks - and they have been relentless - when you are outspent 20 to one, as I have been here in Iowa, you know, I think it is pretty amazing that I am where I am."
Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, is hoping to do well five days later when voters in the northeastern state of New Hampshire hold their primary elections.
There, his strongest challenge is from Arizona Senator John McCain. During an appearance on ABC's This Week program, McCain acknowledged he needs a good performance in New Hampshire to keep his hopes of winning the nomination alive.
"I think we are going to do fine," said McCain. "And it is a great honor and a great experience. We are having great turnouts at town hall meetings, we are talking about the issues; Pakistan is on a lot of peoples' minds, the economy, health care. But most of all people want somebody who has the experience and the judgment to lead this country."
There is also no clear front runner in Iowa and New Hampshire on the Democratic Party side.
New York Senator Hillary Clinton leads in nationwide polls of potential Democratic voters. But in the early primary and caucus states, she is involved in a close three-way race for votes with Illinois Senator Barack Obama and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards.
Both Obama and Edwards are focusing on the need for change in Washington.
Senator Clinton told ABC's This Week that despite her years of experience in Washington, she can provide the fresh perspective many voters appear to be seeking.
"I don't think there is this distinction between change and experience," she said. "I know that is what they have tried to make this campaign about. It is not an either-or choice. That is a false choice for the people of America."
Senator Clinton downplayed the notion that her husband, former President Bill Clinton, would take a leading role in policy matters. Her comments produced laughter from John Edwards during an interview on the CBS program, Face the Nation.
"Well, I think it is a complete fantasy," said Edwards. "If you watch President Clinton - and I like him very much - if you watch him out on the campaign trail, he spends an awful lot of time talking about his views and not so much talking about Senator Clinton's, which is understandable, given his history and his leadership."
While the candidates were appearing on national television, the Reuters News Agency released the results of its latest pre-caucus poll of Iowa voters. It shows Hillary Clinton with a narrow lead on the Democratic side, with Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney in a virtual tie among Republicans.