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In closing...

The top-tier candidates' final messages on the eve of the Iowa caucuses reveal a lot about the path ahead for each of the campaigns.
/ Source: National Journal

Iowans caucus tonight, their heads still ringing with the words candidates have spent the past 48 hours drilling into them. We can't say, at this hour, who'll win the caucuses (arrrgh, blasted deadlines!). But those closing messages reveal boatloads about what kinds of campaigns they've crafted over the past 12 months and, more importantly, what kinds they'll run if they get a ticket out of Iowa. Here's a look at how each top-tier candidate has sought to close his or her Iowa campaign:

If Huckabee loses today, it will be largely because voters perceived him as, well, gravitas-challenged. So how did the former Arkansas governor combat that perception in the campaign's closing hours? He flew west to Los Angeles to tape the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno." The same show that he teased Fred Thompson for appearing on instead of attending a New Hampshire debate in late August.

"I'm just trying to keep from going back to nowhere as fast as I can," he quipped to Leno in the opening minutes of his interview. (No word today on how many Iowa caucus-goers stayed up to watch Leno last night.) It was a curious move for Huck, whose only real chance to avoid "going back to nowhere" is a victory today in Iowa. Huckabee's wife, Janet, did try to focus on what really matters in the campaign's closing hours. She didn't travel to Los Angeles with her husband last night. "I'm going to stay here," she said Wednesday, "and campaign with Chuck Norris."

Climbing back into contention in both national and early state polls, McCain started the New Year with a sobering Web ad on terrorism that's aimed squarely at Mitt Romney in New Hampshire. Called "the scariest ad of the campaign" by one GOP strategist, the spot shows footage of suicide bombings, carnage and Islamic jihadists carrying rifles and the Koran. "Mitt Romney says the next president doesn't need foreign policy experience," a narrator says. The spot is less about Iowa, where McCain now polls third or fourth, and more about New Hampshire, where he's either tied with Romney or holding a slight lead. McCain is also looking ahead to the Jan. 15 primary in Michigan, where he drew the endorsement of the Detroit News today.

Romney ended his campaign this week by maintaining a solid line of attack against Huckabee. "Elections are fun, but they are also serious things, and we face extraordinary challenges in our country today," Romney said in Des Moines on New Year's Day. The line hit Huckabee on his main weakness: a lack of experience and gravitas. (As polls show McCain starting to mount a real threat to his front-runner status in New Hampshire, Romney also closed his Iowa campaign with a few salvos aimed squarely at the Arizonan).

But given his '07 strategy to become a national contender after racking up early state wins, it was notable that Romney told Iowans on Tuesday that the GOP race "isn't going to be over after Iowa. And it's probably not going to be over after New Hampshire, either." Six months ago, Romney certainly wished it would have been.

Romney also started the New Year by acknowledging that he has dipped yet again into his own wallet to make "additional" but unspecified contributions to the campaign, reinforcing the perception that his personal fortune has had a major impact on his political fortunes this year.

Thompson concluded his bid for Iowa much as he began it -- by lowering expectations. In fact, he's now embracing the main critique skeptics have had of his campaign: that the actor/former senator doesn't want it badly enough. "I don't thirst for the name of president," he told supporters in Des Moines on Tuesday. "How badly do you want a candidate to want it? I want it only for the right reasons. My personal ambitions lie in other places." In a new video designed to look like an Oval Office address, Thompson said he wanted to "talk quietly" about the race, for which he said there was "no front-runner here in Iowa." He then droned on, unremarkably, for more than 16 minutes. Thompson's campaign also spread a curious rumor late Wednesday that he'll quit the race and endorse McCain on Friday if he doesn't get at least third place in Iowa. High stakes or high drama? Stay tuned.

Falling in both national and early state polls, Giuliani is clinging to a Florida strategy. To highlight that plan, his campaign said Wednesday that he'll do TV interviews on caucus night from South Florida. Starting Jan. 9, aides say, he'll focus entirely on the Sunshine State. In other words, the national front-runner is concluding his Iowa campaign by reminding voters that he, in fact, won't campaign in several key early states. Interesting strategy. And risky.

Clinton has done something curious, but strategically wise, in the closing days: She's virtually disappeared. Fully aware that her support climbs when she lowers her profile, Clinton has worked hard to make sure she's not the main story. She has also returned to her campaign's initial claims that the experience, i.e. "Day One readiness," that she alone can provide is what the country needs.

"I'm not asking that you take me on a leap of faith," she said Tuesday in Ames. "I'm asking you to look at the evidence and the record, because we don't have any margin for error or any time to waste." In a televised message that aired Wednesday night during Iowa news broadcasts, Clinton asked this question: "Who's ready to be president and ready to start solving the big challenges we face on Day One?" She is essentially making a sobering case for her candidacy that Democratic strategist Chris Lehane calls the "phone-call-in-the-middle-of-the-night." As Lehane put it to the Boston Globe this week, "When the phone call rings in the White House at 3 a.m. with some international or domestic incident, who do you want to answer?"

Obama has taken a much different approach than his main Democratic rival. In his own closing video that aired during local news broadcasts last night, Obama stressed a sense of urgency and asked Iowans to caucus "not just for me but for your hopes, for your dreams, for the America you believe is possible." In that one sentence, Obama repeated three words that have become a cornerstone of his entire campaign: "hope," "dream" and "believe."

Obama is also trying to close by sealing the deal with voters who doubt he can play enough hardball to win this fall. Speaking in Jefferson on Monday, he was asked whether he'd "back off" like Al Gore and John Kerry in the face of any Republican dirty tricks, or stay and "fight." "I intend to whoop 'em so good that it won't even be close and they can't steal the election," he said.

Kicking off a 36-hour "Marathon for the Middle Class" bus tour to conclude his Iowa campaign, Edwards also sought to craft a unique closing message on local news broadcasts last night. Or, rather, Doug Bishop did. Bishop, a laid-off former Maytag employee who lives in Baxter, Iowa, spoke tearfully about the day he and his 7-year-old son met Edwards in 2004. "I'm going to do my best to make sure that my children aren't the first generation of Americans that I can't look them in the eye and say you're going to have a better life than I had," said Bishop, standing before an American flag. "And I think the person who's going to get that done is my friend and yours, John Edwards."

Edwards echoed the emotional tone of Bishop's remarks on Tuesday, saying that he's "speaking from my heart and soul and my gut what I believe needs to be done in this country." Given the questions about sincerity and authenticity that have dogged him throughout 2007, such an appeal was well-advised, and potentially key to his success in must-win Iowa.