U.S. presidential contenders are making a final push for votes with one week to go until the first test of the 2008 election campaign, the Iowa presidential caucuses on January 3.  VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has a preview from Washington.

For the next week, the Midwest state of Iowa will be the center of the U.S. political universe as the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates make a closing appeal for support.

In the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, the latest polls show a tight race among three contenders, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina and Senator Hillary Clinton of New York.

"We know that the next president will face a daunting agenda," Clinton said.

Clinton is emphasizing her experience in Congress and as First Lady while Obama contends he represents the kind of change he says voters are looking for.

Obama made his case during a recent speech in Waterloo, Iowa.

"So I want to know, are you fired up?  Ready to go?  Fired up?  Ready to go?  Let us go change the world!  Thank you, Waterloo," Obama said.

Other Democratic contenders include New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska. 

In the Republican race in Iowa, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is hoping his recent surge in public opinion polls will carry him to victory.

"I am the guy who worked my way up through it and there are a whole lot of people in America who believe that the president ought to be a servant of the people and ought not to be elected to the ruling class," Huckabee said.

Huckabee moved ahead of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in Iowa in several recent polls, and Romney has responded with a barrage of negative television ads.

"I do not have any problem shrinking away from our differences on issues and talking about the differences," Romney said.

Romney remains in the lead in New Hampshire.  New Hampshire hosts the first presidential primary on January 8, five days after the Iowa vote.

Among the other top Republican contenders are former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee and Senator John McCain of Arizona.

Also in the running in the Republican field are Congressman Ron Paul of Texas and Congressman Duncan Hunter of California.

As the first test in the 2008 election cycle, the Iowa caucuses will get massive news coverage and should provide the winners the opportunity to get off to a fast start in the battle for the party nominations.

"The Iowa caucuses are important because they are the first nominating contest in the election year," said Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University in Washington.  "They are caucuses, but that simply means you have to come to a meeting to vote."

Most of the presidential contenders have been on the campaign trail for much of the past year, but the Iowa vote represents the official start to the 2008 campaign year.

"It is important for the American people, who are not a particularly political people, they have other things on their mind," said Stephen Hess, an expert on politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It is not until they really start to focus, and the focus is brought together by an election or a caucus, which is a type of election, and then they really start to hone in on the presidential election, which will not come until November."

Candidates do not necessarily have to win in Iowa to keep their campaigns alive.  But those who do poorly may be forced to quit the race fairly soon.

Historian Allan Lichtman predicts the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire will quickly narrow the field of contenders in both parties.

"This year, everyone thinks that the Iowa caucuses are going to winnow down the field of candidates, probably to maybe three on the Democratic side and four on the Republican side," he said.

After Iowa and New Hampshire, the presidential campaign moves on to Nevada, South Carolina and Florida during the month of January.

The primary season reaches a climax on February 5, when more than 20 states hold nominating contests in a single day.  The party nominees will be confirmed at national conventions in late August and early September.