The Midwest state of Iowa begins the 2008 presidential nominating process Thursday, and the race for the Republican Party's presidential nomination appears to be wide open at this point. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has a closer look at the Republican race from Des Moines, Iowa.

Public opinion polls show a tight race in the Republican field in Iowa between former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Romney is better financed and better organized in Iowa than Huckabee. But Huckabee has risen in the polls in recent weeks thanks in large part to growing support from social and religious conservatives who make up a sizable portion of Republican voters in Iowa.

"But if you in Iowa prove that it is not just about the money, it is about the message, it is about what people care about, then we will have an impact on politics for decades to come," said Huckabee.

Romney has launched several attack ads in recent days, targeting both Huckabee and Senator John McCain of Arizona. McCain is gaining on Romney in New Hampshire, which hosts the first presidential primary next Tuesday, five days after the Iowa vote.

During his campaign stops, Romney stays away from attacks on his opponents and focuses instead on his own background.

"I think it important to have somebody who knows something about change, who has lived in the private sector, who knows why jobs come and why they go, who has traveled in the world and understands how we compete with other nations," said Romney.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has not campaigned much in Iowa, even though he has led the Republican field in national polls for months. Giuliani hopes to score some victories in primaries in late January and early February in larger states like Florida, California and New York.

Among the Republican contenders in Iowa, there is also a struggle for third place between John McCain and former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee.

Senator McCain emphasizes his military background and his experience in foreign policy issues.

"I have one guiding principle, one ambition, and that is to keep America safe and to achieve and maintain our greatness," he said.

Thompson also argues that his background as a lawyer and senator makes him uniquely qualified to be commander in chief.

"When our worst enemy is sitting there at the negotiating table and thinking what he can do to the United States of America, who do you want sitting on our side of the table representing you? That is probably the guy you ought to elect president," said Thompson.

Surveys of Republican voters show about half either have not decided on a contender yet or, if they have, they could still change their minds.

Historians note that this is the first presidential election since 1928 that neither a sitting president nor vice president is seeking their party nomination, adding a new level of uncertainty to the process.

"There is not a sitting president in contention for the nomination and there is not a sitting vice president in contention for the nomination," said Allan Lichtman, who is a presidential historian at American University in Washington. "There is no heir apparent whatever for the incumbent party, the party holding the White House. That is very unusual in modern American history."

After Iowa, the Republican battle goes to New Hampshire, Michigan, South Carolina and Florida.

The Republicans will officially nominate their presidential candidate in early September at their national convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The Democrats hold their nominating convention in late August in Denver, Colorado.