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US Presidential Contenders Focus on January Test in Iowa

The U.S. presidential contenders are focused on the Midwest state of Iowa, where the first test of the 2008 presidential campaign will take place three weeks from now on January 3. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has the latest on the presidential race from Washington.

In their final debate before the Iowa caucuses on January 3, the Democratic presidential contenders put forward their plans for the economy, trade, health care and the war in Iraq.

The latest polls indicate a close race among three Democrats in Iowa including Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

Obama argued that he would be the agent of change should he win the presidency in November of next year.

"I believe we can provide better economic security, that we can restore out standing in the world and that we can make sure that our children have a brighter future. But we can only do it if we have the courage to change."

Clinton countered that her experience makes her better suited to bring change to Washington.

"Some believe you get change by demanding it. Some believe you get it by hoping for it. I believe you get it by working hard for change," she said. "That is what I have done my entire life."

Other Democratic contenders competing in Iowa include New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich.

The battle for the Republican Party's presidential nomination is also close. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has surged into a lead in Iowa, according to public opinion polls in recent weeks.

Huckabee spoke about his leadership style during a Republican candidate's debate in Iowa on Wednesday.

"I am still in awe that this country would afford kids like me the opportunity to be a president," he said. "I will try not to forget where I came from and where this country needs to go."

Huckabee's gain in Iowa has come at the expense of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who had led the polls there for months.

Both men are battling for the votes of social conservatives, who oppose abortion and gay rights and who tend to be religious.

In the latest Republican debate, Romney tried to make the case that he had a more conservative record as a governor than Huckabee.

"If you want to see a strong America, you do not look to Washington, you look to ways to strengthen the American people," he explained.

Experts say Huckabee is gaining in Iowa, because he is winning over social conservative voters.

Michael Barone has written extensively about U.S. politics for years.

"About two-thirds of his support is from people who describe themselves as Evangelical Christians," he noted. "Clearly, he has got a lot of charm. He is articulate. People rate his performances well in these debates. So, I think it is a combination of factors there."

Other Republicans vying for the party nomination include former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator John McCain of Arizona and former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee. Three House members are running as well, Congressman Duncan Hunter of California, Congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado and Congressman Ron Paul of Texas.

There could be more upheaval in the presidential races in both parties in the next few weeks.

Karlyn Bowman monitors public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"40 percent of Democrats say they have made up their minds about the race," she explained. "These are people with a preference. Only 23 percent of Republicans say that they have made up their minds at this point in the race, so I think a lot could change."

The Iowa vote kicks off an intense schedule of presidential caucuses and primaries that begin in early January and reach a climax on February 5 when more than 20 states will hold some form of primary voting on the same day.