The first voting in the race for the U.S. presidency is kicking off Tuesday in the state of Iowa, where Republicans hold party caucuses to choose the candidate they want to challenge President Barack Obama.
Residents will brave the winter cold to cast their votes in churches, schools, libraries and other meeting places. They will hear final campaign speeches from local representatives for each candidate before the voting begins Tuesday evening.
The latest polls show former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum leading the group of contenders.
Romney is at the head of the pack, with small-government advocate Paul close behind and conservative Santorum in third. But with nearly half of Iowa voters saying they are still making up their minds, the outcome is impossible to predict.
Over the past few days, most of the Republican candidates have focused their attacks on President Obama.
Romney on Tuesday slammed Mr. Obama's record on Iran, the economy and job creation.
"This has been a failed presidency. I will go to work to get Americans back to work and make sure that job one is concentrating on jobs for Americans, not just keeping one's own job," he said.
Former House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich, who is well behind the leaders in the poll, took aim at Romney Tuesday in a TV interview, calling him a liar.
Voters in Iowa often do not crown the eventual presidential nominees for either Republicans or Democrats. But the state's caucuses, the first event in the presidential election process, can serve as a launchpad for success in other states during the next several weeks. The Iowa caucuses also serve to push weaker contenders out of the race.
Of the seven Republican contenders, one of them, the former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, has not campaigned in Iowa. He is pinning his hopes on a good showing in the northeastern state of New Hampshire, where voters will cast primary election ballots on January 10.
The Democratic party also holds its caucuses Tuesday. President Obama is unopposed for the Democratic nomination, but he faces a difficult test to win another term. The nation's economy, the world's largest, has recovered sluggishly from the 2007-2009 recession, leaving many voters questioning his leadership.
Mr. Obama returned to Washington Tuesday after a 10-day vacation in Hawaii and will host a live web chat with supporters in Iowa Tuesday night as the caucuses are taking place.
VOA correspondents Jim Malone and Kane Farabaugh discuss Iowa caucuses