Voters in the midwest state of Iowa are preparing to take part in the first major test of the 2004 presidential campaign, the Iowa caucuses. An estimated 100,000 Iowa Democrats will head out later to community meetings to express their preference among the eight Democratic presidential candidates.
The Iowa caucuses are the first major indication of which candidates may be connecting with voters. The polls suggest the race is extremely close with four of the eight Democratic candidates bunched near the top.
Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean has been the presumed Democratic frontrunner, both in Iowa and nationally. But negative attacks from rivals and verbal gaffes from the candidate appear to have weakened his standing in the polls.
But Mr. Dean remains upbeat about his chances Monday night. "I think we are going to do fine, I really do. I think we are going to win tonight. We have got thousands of the people on the streets, knocking on doors, going out to get people to vote for the first time, just like we have run the whole campaign so far," he said.
During the past week, the story in Iowa has been the surge by two candidates, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and North Carolina Senator John Edwards.
Senator Kerry told CBS television that he expects a boost out of the Iowa vote that will help him in the dozens of primaries to come. "I have always said there are three tickets out of Iowa and I was going to fight for one of them. I think it is quite remarkable that we are doing as well as we are at this point in time. It is a credit to the independence of the people out here who really listen," he said.
All of the candidates are pushing themselves hard in the final hours of the Iowa campaign, sweeping around the state in search of votes.
Senator John Edwards is urging his supporters to help their neighbors to get out to the caucus sites on Monday. "I came here to ask you to caucus for me. I need you. I cannot do this without you," he said.
Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt is the fourth Democrat in contention in Iowa. He won this event when he ran for president in 1988, but a poor showing this time could cripple his presidential hopes.
Congressman Gephardt is counting on trade union support to mobilize voters. "We have an army on the ground out here and they are bringing all our people out and I really think we are going to win. This is a dead heat, a very close contest between four candidates and we are going to win it," he said.
The Iowa vote formally begins the delegate selection process leading up to the Democratic National Convention in July when the party will nominate a candidate to run against President Bush in the November election.
President Bush is unopposed within the Republican Party and will be re-nominated at the Republican National Convention in late August.