DES MOINES, IOWA—
Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls crisscrossed Iowa on Saturday, making last-minute appeals to voters and tightening their attacks on rivals ahead of the state's crucial, first-in-the-nation nominating contest.
With just two days to go before the Iowa caucuses, both the Democratic and Republican races appeared to be tightening. Almost every major candidate in both parties held campaign rallies and gave speeches across this rural Midwestern state.
The notable exception for a time was GOP front-runner Donald Trump. The billionaire businessman instead looked past Iowa, opting to campaign in New Hampshire, which holds the nation's next nominating event February 9.
Trump defends debate decision
Speaking at a rally Friday in Nashua, the brash reality television star defended his decision to withdraw from Thursday's Republican presidential debate in Des Moines following a dispute with debate host Fox News.
"I did something that was very risky and I think it turned out good because I'm on the front page of every paper," Trump said. "I'm getting more publicity than if I [did participate], you know?"
"When you're not treated properly, you have to stick up for your rights. And if I'm your leader, we're going to stick up for the rights of the country," Trump said.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump signs autographs during a campaign stop at the Radisson Hotel in Nashua, New Hampshire, Jan. 29, 2016.
Trump refused to participate because of what he said was unfair treatment by Fox. He especially took issue with moderator Megyn Kelly. The two have repeatedly clashed after Kelly asked Trump during a previous debate about his past insulting comments about women.
Though Trump succeeded in dominating yet another news cycle by sitting out the debate, the move also risks alienating Iowa voters, analysts said.
"We won't know whether or not this was truly a good move until we find out how Iowans cast their votes," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell told VOA.
"If they don't feel shunned, then this was a brilliant move by Trump, because he wound up being the debate winner precisely because Ted Cruz was in the hot seat."
After his New Hampshire trip, Trump was back in Iowa for the weekend, with stops planned in five cities, according to his campaign website. Two more appearances in the state were scheduled for Monday.
WATCH: Jim Malone on significance of Iowa caucuses:
Cruz recovers from debate
Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas who is second behind Trump in most national polls, spent much of Friday trying to recover from what most pundits agreed was one of his worst debate performances of the primary season.
During the debate, Cruz appeared to struggle to adequately explain his past stances on immigration. He also repeatedly clashed with the debate moderators. The front page of Iowa's biggest paper, The Des Moines Register, on Friday summarized Cruz's struggles with the headline: "Rough Night for Cruz."
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, center, bites his lip as he gets up to introduce Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, left, at a campaign event at High Point Bulls Oswald Barn in Osceola, Iowa, Jan. 26, 2016.
At a Friday campaign event, Cruz dismissed the headline.
"You know, we've seen too many Republicans that live in the echo chamber of the mainstream media bubble, that live in the world of political correctness," he said. "My focus is on talking to the voters directly and making the case to them that I have spent my entire life fighting to defend the Constitution."
Too close to call
Cruz's shaky debate performance and Trump's absence is causing further uncertainty about who will come out on top when Iowa Republicans caucus Monday night.
According to a RealClearPolitics average of Iowa polls, Trump remains in first place at about 31 percentage points, compared with Cruz's 25 percent. In third place is Florida Senator Marco Rubio with about 14 percentage points.
On the Democratic side, the situation in Iowa is no clearer. The same polling average shows Hillary Clinton's lead slipping. The ex-secretary of state is now just 2.5 percentage points ahead of her main challenger, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Clinton email controversy
Meanwhile, Clinton's campaign is again being dogged by the controversy over her use of a private email server during her time as the top U.S. diplomat.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 29, 2016.
The State Department said Friday that it would withhold seven of Clinton's private email chains, 37 pages in total, because they contained top-secret information.
Clinton has said that none of the info was classified at the time she sent it. She has turned over the emails to the State Department, which has been releasing them in batches.
In a statement, Clinton's campaign said it "firmly" opposes the complete blocking of the email chain. "Since first providing her emails to the State Department more than one year ago, Hillary Clinton has urged that they be made available to the public. We feel no differently today."
The revelation lends weight to Clinton's critics who argue she endangered U.S. national security by keeping the emails on a private, unsecured server.
Sanders, who in the past refused to strongly criticize Clinton over the email issue, has not commented on the latest revelations.
It is not clear how much of an impact the news will have on the outcome in Iowa.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., shakes hands during a campaign rally in Davenport, Iowa, Jan. 29, 2016.
Another lingering uncertainty in Iowa is the weather. Though in recent days Iowa has seen unseasonably warm conditions, forecasters expect a significant snowstorm to sweep across the state Monday night, just when the caucuses are set to take place.
Depending on when and where the storm hits, it could have a major impact on voter turnout. In that case, the better-organized campaigns would have a big advantage, according to GOP analyst Jack Pitney, who spoke with VOA.
"An extremely well-organized campaign has contingency plans. And so we'll see if Trump has anything like that," said Pitney, noting that both Cruz and Rubio appear to have well-run ground campaigns.
On the Democratic side, it is not clear what impact a storm would have, he says.
"It appears the Sanders people have more passion,” Pitney said, “and people who believe in the things Sanders stands for might be willing to brave the snowstorm in order to express that.
"But then again, Clinton is more of a veteran of Iowa politics, and has invested a great deal in infrastructure and technology, so she may have more capability to get people to the caucus sites."