The 2008 U.S. presidential race begins in the Midwest state of Iowa Thursday, when Democrats and Republicans across the state will gather in small meetings, or caucuses, and vote for their favorite candidates for president.  The race for the Democratic presidential nomination appears to be especially close, as we hear from VOA National correspondent Jim Malone in Iowa's capital of Des Moines. 

The three top Democratic contenders in Iowa are New York Senator Hillary Clinton, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards and Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

In the final hours of the campaign, the candidates are trying to shore up support at various rallies around the state and bombarding the television airwaves with political ads, like this one for Obama.

"I want to stop talking about the outrage of 47 million Americans without health care, and start actually doing something about it," he said.  "Your future is our future and our moment is now."

The latest polls show a tight race among the so-called Democratic big three, Obama, Clinton and Edwards.

Edwards is hoping to build on his strong showing in the 2004 Iowa presidential caucuses, when he finished second to John Kerry and eventually became his vice presidential running mate in the 2004 election.

"We are in a very close contest because this message of standing up for the promise of America, for our children, making sure we stand up for American jobs and ending this corporate greed that is doing so much damage, all those things are issues that resonate with Iowa caucus goers," he said.

Senator Clinton spent the final hours of the Iowa campaign urging her supporters to take part in the Thursday vote.

"It really matters whether you go to the caucuses Thursday night, because the entire country is going to be watching, the world is going to be watching," she said.  "You know, a lot of the world is holding its breath.  They need a new president too."

Clinton focuses on her experience in Congress and as a former first lady, which she believes gives her an advantage over Edwards and particularly Obama, who is in his first term in the Senate.

But some of the other Democratic contenders are also highlighting their experience, especially in foreign policy, as they try to get out from under the shadow of the three leading candidates.

Joe Biden chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has been in Congress since the 1970s.

Biden believes voters want someone who is immediately ready to assume the job of commander in chief.

"Do they have confidence that person can handle the meltdown in Pakistan, end the war in Iraq, know exactly what to do now at the moment of great peril?" he asked.

Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut is making a similar argument, as is New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.  Richardson often mentions his service as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration.

"I hope you make this a wide open race and give those of us who just happen to be qualified and those of us who can change this country a chance," he said.  "That is all I ask."

Still, Richardson, Dodd and Biden lag well behind the top three Democrats in the polls.

Political experts say it is important for the top presidential contenders to do well in the early caucus and primary states, like Iowa and New Hampshire.

"It is entirely plausible that Iowa and New Hampshire will be the equivalent of a super sling shot now, giving candidates who do well enormous momentum," said Norman Ornstein, who is with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

After Iowa, the presidential campaign heads to New Hampshire next Tuesday, then on to Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina and Florida later in the month.