WASHINGTON - The presidential contenders from both major U.S. political parties are making a last-minute push for votes in Iowa in advance of the February 1 party caucuses.  And it’s clear the main battle lines are now drawn in both party races — national frontrunner Donald Trump versus Texas Senator Ted Cruz on the Republican side and frontrunner Hillary Clinton in a much tighter than expected matchup with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders among Democrats.

In the Republican race, Trump has intensified his attacks on Cruz and is wielding the endorsement of former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin as a major advantage as the Iowa race moves into the final stage.

Will Palin make a difference?

Trump remains locked in a tight race with Cruz and Trump hopes the endorsement from Palin will give him an edge with conservative voters.  “This is a woman who, from day one, I said if I ever do this I have to get her support.  She feels it and she understands it better than anybody,” Trump told cheering supporters in Ames, Iowa, during a joint appearance with the former Alaska governor.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, left, endorses Rep
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, left, endorses Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a rally at the Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, Jan. 19, 2016.

Palin remains influential with Tea Party activists in Iowa and elsewhere and many analysts saw her decision to side with Trump as a blow to the Cruz campaign.  Palin helped Cruz win his Senate race in Texas in 2012 but decided to back Trump in this year’s presidential race.  “He is beholden to no one but ‘we the people.’  How refreshing!  He is perfectly positioned to let you make America great again,” Palin said to cheers at the rally in Ames.

Palin’s star within the party, however, has faded a bit in recent years.  Her decision to quit the Alaska governor’s job early and focus on building up her career as a hybrid political pundit-celebrity has made her more of a conservative pop icon than someone who has broad political influence within the Republican Party.

Trump Surges to Lead in Iowa

The latest CNN-ORC poll has Trump ahead of Cruz in Iowa now by a margin of 37 to 26 percent, with Florida Senator Marco Rubio in third place with 14 percent.  Previous polls had Cruz ahead in Iowa and some analysts now wonder if the Palin endorsement and Trump’s intensified attacks on Cruz are taking a toll.

The Trump campaign has issued a new attack ad directed at Cruz and accuses him of "flip-flopping" on the key issue of immigration.  Trump has made stopping illegal immigration the core of his campaign pitch.

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz,
FILE - Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks during a campaign stop at the Freedom Country Store, Jan. 19, 2016, in Freedom, New Hampshire.

For his part, Cruz remains focused on winning over evangelical voters, a key constituency in Iowa that reliably turns out to take part in the Republican caucus votes every four years. 

“People are waking up.  There is an awakening that is powerful, that is sweeping the country,” Cruz told supporters during a recent meet-and-greet event in Iowa.  “And what’s happening is very simple.  The spirit of freedom is sweeping America, so I’m thrilled to be here with you today.”

The battle for Iowa

Cruz supporters insist they are better organized on the ground than the Trump campaign.  Trump has dominated the debate in the Republican race since last August but some experts say it remains an open question as to whether the Trump supporters, who seem so enthusiastic at his rallies, will actually take the time to register to vote and show up on caucus night. 

“Some voters will say, ‘Look, I like Donald Trump, but I really want a candidate who can win, who can beat Hillary Clinton.’  So those types of considerations become much more apparent for voters as they get closer to their actual vote,” said John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

Party divisions could intensify

Some establishment Republicans seem to be trying to become comfortable with the notion that Trump could become the party nominee.  Part of that stems from a deep distrust of Cruz among Republican congressional leaders and establishment worries that Cruz at the head of the GOP ticket could cost them control of the Senate in November.

Diehard conservative groups are fighting back and raising questions about whether Trump is a committed conservative or whether he would transform himself into a moderate once he wins the nomination.  The conservative National Review magazine, founded by iconic conservative William F. Buckley, is devoting a special issue aimed at stopping Trump with “Against Trump” on the cover.  This battle is just beginning.

Establishment contenders still struggling

After Rubio in Iowa, the rest of the so-called establishment field is lagging well behind, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Ohio Governor John Kasich.  Bush continues to take shots at Trump with the hope of coalescing the support of those opposed to Trump becoming the nominee. 

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a candidate for the
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Jan. 19, 2016.

“Someone who proposes a 45 percent tariff across the board on China?  That is not a serious proposal.  It’s basically the advocacy of a global depression,” Bush said this past week during an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City.

Bush, Rubio, Christie and Kasich have set their sights on what they see as the bigger battle among the Republican establishment contenders in the New Hampshire primary on February 9; but, they face two major challenges.  Trump still has a big lead in New Hampshire and the four establishment challengers are running ads targeting each other, not Trump.

Sanders surges in Iowa as Clinton supporters fret

The Democratic race in Iowa is less crowded but no less intense.  Hillary Clinton had built up a big lead in Iowa months ago over Bernie Sanders; but, the latest CNN-ORC poll shows Sanders pulling into a lead by 51 to 43 percent over Clinton.  Other recent polls have shown the race tightening but Clinton still holding to a slight lead.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets attendees at a campaign event in Vinton, Iowa, Jan. 21, 2016.

Clinton has stepped up her attacks on Sanders, something the campaign avoided for months.  In a new ad, Clinton touts her service as secretary of state and her experience in dealing with international affairs. 

Sanders has a new ad out as well, a feel-good inspirational call to action for the progressive Democrats around the country who have flocked to Sanders rallies, especially younger voters.

Who would be stronger against Republicans?

Clinton now argues she is the more practical candidate, could work well with Republicans in Congress and that Sander’s plans for wider health care coverage would lead to huge tax increases for the middle class.

“We’ve got to get out of the partisanship into statesmanship,” Clinton told supporters at a recent rally in Toledo, Ohio.  “We have to look for opportunities to work with each other in order to give all of you the government you deserve to have, a government that is accountable to you!”

FILE - Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sa
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign event in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Jan. 19, 2016.

Sanders has been busy trying to convince skeptical Democrats that he could win a national election against a Republican candidate even with his own self-described label of a “Democratic socialist.” 

“If you want somebody who is going to beat Donald Trump, who is going to beat the other Republicans, I think Bernie Sanders is that candidate,” Sanders told a recent rally in Iowa.

Younger voters playing key role

The key for Sanders is building enthusiasm within the liberal base of the Democratic Party, especially among younger voters.  Sanders has also struck a chord with his focus on battling income inequality and reining in what he calls the “billionaire class.”  

“Average people have declining incomes.  Huge growth in inequality.  Billionaires buying influence.  And so they want change and some of that has to do with reining in the way corporate money has influenced government and Bernie Sanders has given voice to that,” said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg in an interview with VOA’s Cindy Saine.

With the Iowa vote only days away, it appears that Republican Trump and Democrat Sanders have the momentum, perhaps putting an exclamation point on what has been an unpredictable and chaotic presidential election cycle. 

“There seems to be an extraordinary amount of anger in the United States, both on the left and on the right and maybe even in the center and it’s a little disconcerting,” said political analyst Stan Collender.  “I don’t think anyone saw this coming or anyone predicted it.”

In Iowa, the time for campaigning is growing short.  The voters are about to have their say and it just might turn out to be something that no one could have predicted just six months ago.