With just one month to go until the beginning of the U.S. presidential election process, the candidates and voters are bracing for some surprises in the early caucuses and primaries. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has a preview from Washington.
The process for selecting the party nominees for president begins in Iowa on January 3. The latest public opinion polls suggest there could be some surprises in store when Iowa voters from both major political parties gather in small groups or caucuses to make their preferences known.
In the race for the Republican Party's presidential nomination, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has surged into a small lead in the latest surveys, moving ahead of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who had been leading in Iowa for months.
Huckabee is appealing to conservative Christian voters who make up a sizable portion of the Republican caucus-goers in Iowa.
Huckabee was asked about his foreign policy goals on the ABC program This Week.
"One of the most important things our nation must do in the next several years is to rebuild relationships with other countries," said Mike Huckabee. "Not by capitulating, not by becoming weak, because I believe the best way for us to be a secure nation is by having the strongest possible military, so strong in fact that nobody wants to engage it in a time of war."
In the race for the Democratic Party nomination, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York is engaged in a close race in Iowa with Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. Former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina is within striking distance of the lead in third place.
Clinton has a narrow lead in the latest Associated Press Pew Poll. But Obama has been gaining of late and leads in other recent polls of Democrats in Iowa.
During a recent candidate's forum in Iowa, Obama promised to push for reform if elected next year and vowed to limit the influence of special interest groups.
"They are not going to work in my White House and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am President of the United States of America," said Senator Obama
Polls suggest Democratic voters who consider change and reform their top priority prefer Obama, while those who are looking for an experienced leader are more likely to support Clinton.
Clinton leads in the national polls, but a stumble in Iowa could give Obama and some of her other Democratic rivals an opening to make it a much closer race.
"The contest starts in Iowa on January 3, and Hillary Clinton has never sold well there," said Larry Sabato, who directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "She has not even once crossed the 30 percent threshold in public polling. That says to me, since she is the frontrunner, that about 70 percent or more of Iowa Democrats would prefer to vote for someone else if they can."
Polls suggest Democratic voters are most concerned about the war in Iraq and the rising cost of health care. Republicans appear more focused on stopping illegal immigration, bolstering national security and cutting taxes.
Iowa caucus participants are required to gather in small groups on a winter's night to make their candidate preferences known. That differs from a primary where voters go to the polls and vote for their favorite contender.
Iowa State University expert Steffen Schmidt says Iowans take their caucus role very seriously.
"The ones who participate do really want to understand the candidates and they go back again and again to talk to them and meet them and find out about them and so on," he said. "So, it is quite an interesting sort of commitment because the caucuses are much more difficult than a primary when it comes to participation."
Caucuses and primaries are used to select delegates committed to various candidates who will then support them at the national nominating conventions to be held later in the year, in advance of the November election.
The latest surveys from Iowa indicate that about half of those planning to take part in the caucuses could change their minds between now and January 3, adding an extra element of uncertainty to an already unpredictable race in both parties.