After listening to the candidates and their campaign promises for months, U.S. voters will get their first chance to weigh in on the 2008 presidential race January 3 in the Midwest state of Iowa. The Iowa caucuses kick off hotly contested nomination battles in both major parties in advance of the U.S. presidential election in November. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has a preview.
After months of speeches, rallies and debates, it is almost time for the voters to begin having their say about who will be the major candidates in the 2008 presidential election. And many experts predict the voters will be looking for change.
"There definitely seems to be an appetite for change in the public as a whole," said Karlyn Bowman, who monitors public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Again, the Bush presidency has not been a success in the minds of most Americans, so in that sense I think they are ready to think about something new."
For Democrats, that something new could be Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.
"I believe we can provide better economic security and that we can restore our 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," she said.
Public opinion polls show Obama is in a tight three-way race among Democrats in Iowa with Senator Hillary Clinton of New York and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards.
Clinton has long been the frontrunner for the Democratic party's nomination, but an early stumble in Iowa could open up a fierce battle with the other contenders.
To counter Obama, Senator Clinton is emphasizing her years of experience as a member of Congress and a former First Lady.
"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. That is what I will do as president."
Experts caution that Edwards could also be a factor in the January 3 caucuses. Edwards remains well organized in Iowa after his strong second place showing in the Iowa Democratic caucuses in 2004.
Analyst Karlyn Bowman believes Obama will have an advantage if change becomes the central issue in the 2008 campaign.
"I think Obama is clearly the candidate who is benefiting from change," she noted. "That has been a signature theme of his throughout the campaign. He is the new face. He is something different. We know Hillary Clinton very well. Whether or not that will boost his fortunes in Iowa remains to be seen."
As volatile as the Democratic race appears, the battle for the Republican Party presidential nomination looks even more uncertain.
In recent weeks, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has surged to the top of the polls in the early contest states of Iowa and South Carolina.
"Our founding fathers had the idea that when we are elected, we are not elected as a part to be elevated up, but to truly remember who we work for," he said.
Huckabee's rise comes at the expense of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who had been leading in Iowa for months. Romney continues to hold a lead in New Hampshire, which holds the first presidential primary on January 8, five days after the Iowa vote.
Huckabee is also cutting into the lead in national polls long held by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows Giuliani tied with Romney for the lead among Republicans at 20 percent each. Huckabee trails with 17 percent and Senator John McCain of Arizona is at 14 percent. Giuliani had a double-digit lead in the same poll six weeks ago.
Surveys show that voters rate Giuliani as a strong leader based on his handling of the September 11th terrorist attacks. But conservative Republicans take issue with his moderate views on social issues like abortion, gay rights and gun control.
Giuliani, who married the woman he was having an affair with while mayor of New York, has also been on the defensive over his personal life. But he remains upbeat about his chances.
"We are going to go, if I am President of the United States, in the direction of giving more money, more authority and more decision making to the people," he said.
Senator John McCain and former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee also score well in polls of some of the early contest states, setting up what could be a lengthy battle for the Republican nomination.
Tom DeFrank of the New York Daily News has long covered U.S. politics and is a frequent guest on VOA's Issues in the News program.
"Usually, this [Republican Party] is more of a royalist party that settles on at least one or two logical nominees. That is not the case here," he explained. "I think it is totally up for grabs, and the Republican contest is one that might go on for much longer than the Democratic contest."
The road to the White House in January goes through the early contest states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, then reaches a climax on February 5 when more than 20 states will hold primaries or caucuses.