Democrats in the midwest state of Iowa formally begin the process of selecting the party's presidential nominee Monday in a race that opinion polls indicate is extremely close.
The first crucial test vote of the 2004 presidential campaign comes Monday night when an estimated 100,000 Democrats are expected to meet in schools and community centers across Iowa and declare their preferences among the eight Democratic candidates.
Republican voters will also gather, but President Bush has no opposition to run again as the Republican nominee.
Late polls suggest the Democratic race in Iowa is simply too close to call. Four candidates are bunched near the top, including Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. "If you will stand with me on November 2, we will send George Bush back to Texas, and we will say 'mission accomplished,' said Mr. Kerry. "Let's get the job done!"
North Carolina Senator John Edwards has also surged in the polls in the final days of the Iowa campaign. He rallied supporters in Davenport, Iowa. "In this campaign, we are going to restore the power of democracy. You and I together, we can do this," he said. "We are going to do it!"
Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean is doing all he can to stay ahead of the Democratic pack. During a visit to Georgia Sunday, he was praised by former President Jimmy Carter for his early opposition to the war in Iraq.
Mr. Dean then flew back to Iowa to urge his supporters to get out to the caucuses on Monday night. "You have the power to take the White House back for ordinary Americans again, and that is exactly what we are going to do."
The fourth Democrat near the lead in Iowa is Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt. He is counting on help from trade unions to make a strong showing on Monday. "I don't care about being president. I don't need the job. I don't need the title," he said. "But America needs a leader who comes from the life experience of the American people, and who can do this stuff!"
Political experts say the recent momentum appears to be with the Kerry and Edwards campaigns. But they also contend that candidates Dean and Gephardt have better get-out-the-vote operations in Iowa.
After Iowa, the campaign heads to New Hampshire, where retired General Wesley Clark has surged in recent polls. General Clark and Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman are skipping the Iowa vote, and are focusing instead on the January 27 New Hampshire primary.
The other two Democrats remaining in the presidential field are Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich and civil rights activist Al Sharpton.