After more than a year of speeches, rallies and campaign promises, voters in the midwestern U.S. state of Iowa will have the first say Thursday in the 2008 race for the presidency. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has a preview of the Iowa presidential caucuses from the state capital of Des Moines.
There are tight races in both major political parties, and in the final hours before the Iowa caucuses begin, the candidates were out on the campaign trail urging their supporters to show up and vote.
Senator Barack Obama, one of the leading candidates in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, rallied supporters at a late night rally near Des Moines.
"Stand up for change we can believe in," he said. "That is why we are here. That is why I am running for President of the United States of America."
Obama is in a very tight three-way race in Iowa with fellow Democrats Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.
Edwards wound up a grueling 36-hour straight campaign swing with a plea for support focused on fighting corporate greed and expanding health care.
"It is time for us to fight back. It is time for us to stand up," he said. "It is time for us to show some backbone and courage, to stand in the footsteps of all those who came before us."
Edwards and Obama are hoping to overtake the longtime Democratic frontrunner, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York.
Like all the candidates, Clinton is focused now on making sure her supporters get out to the Iowa caucuses, small community meetings where voters will express their preferences for who should be the party's presidential candidate.
"I need you to go and stand for me for a night, and as your president, I will stand and fight for you and America," she said.
Other Democratic contenders include Senators Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich.
The race for the Republican Party's presidential nomination is also very tight in Iowa.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is hoping to complete a remarkable transformation from virtual unknown to Republican frontrunner. Huckabee's steady rise in the polls in recent weeks has been helped by support from social and religious conservatives, who make up a large portion of Republican voters in Iowa.
"If we win, it will be the most unbelievable political story in decades," he said. "You will tell your kids and grandkids, I helped make political history."
But recent polls suggest Huckabee's once formidable lead in Iowa may be slipping under a withering assault from former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
Romney has seized on some misstatements by Huckabee on foreign policy and is touting his own credentials as former businessman as well as governor.
"I think it is really essential to select somebody who has had the experience of leadership, who has run something," he said. "There are a lot of people who can talk well. But talking well is one thing, and actually knowing that you can get the job done is another."
Senator John McCain of Arizona, former Senator Fred Thompson and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani are battling for third place in Iowa, and Congressman Ron Paul of Texas and Duncan Hunter of California will also be looking for Republican support.
After the Iowa vote, the 2008 campaign for the White House heads to the Northeastern state of New Hampshire, where the first presidential primary will be held next Tuesday. Although the candidates have been fighting hard to come out on top in Iowa and New Hampshire, victory in these early state contests is no guarantee they will go on to win the Republican or Democratic presidential nomination. That will only become clear after primaries are held in dozens of other states in the coming months.