Tightly bunched in the polls, four Democratic presidential rivals crisscrossed Iowa on Saturday, reaching for the finish line of a caucus campaign that marks the first test of the 2004 election.
“It’s going to come down to the ground war,” Sen. John Kerry told supporters in Clinton, the first of six stops on his schedule for the day.
It was a message that Rep. Dick Gephardt, Sen. John Edwards and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean also delivered as the field looked ahead to 1,993 precinct meetings around the state Monday night.
Edwards released the final commercial of the Iowa campaign, silent scenes accompanied by written words and instrumental music. “To all those who stood up, listened and spoke out. Made us laugh, question, think and believe a positive vision of hope and new ideas can change America. Your time is now,” the ad said.
The major candidates focused heavily on vote-rich eastern Iowa during the day. Polls showed a close race and a significant number of activists still undecided.
Race remains tight
Dean and Gephardt agreed Friday to end their use of relentlessly negative television commercials. Edwards urged them to go a step further and stop the direct-mail attacks in the state.
“This is about Washington insiders versus a campaign built on shoe leather and mousepads,” Dean said. He labeled his rivals “fine folks” that he will support if he loses. “But they aren’t going to change America and America needs to be changed,” he said.
Gephardt, once considered the favorite, dismissed a “ridiculous” raft of polls and was banking on a voter-turnout effort rooted in his labor backing.
“We’re in the stretch run — this is when it really counts,” he said.
The decision to pull the attack TV ads was hardly a gesture toward civility. The race is increasingly focused on a significant group of those undecided activists who are thought not to react well to negative campaigning.
Swinging back and forth
The campaign has taken wild swings in the closing weeks. Gephardt started out the race as the favorite, given his 20-year history in the state, but Dean’s Internet-driven campaign rolled past him.
In recent days, the internal polling has shown John Kerry and Edwards on a surge. The stakes are highest for Gephardt, because a loss would likely end his effort, while Dean has the money to soldier on. A loss would jolt the high-flying Dean campaign.
Iowa’s complex caucus process makes polling extraordinarily difficult and the results impossible to predict. Those who back minor candidates may find themselves forced to make a second pick, and those decisions could sway the outcome of a race within the polling margins.
Edwards credited his surge to his campaign’s decision to stay out of the bickering between his top-tier rivals.
“I think we’re going above a lot of this sniping on television,” said Edwards. “People have been intensely subjected to that. They’re getting inundated with information, a lot of it negative.”
“Are you ready to surge through Saturday and into Sunday and Monday night?” Kerry told hundreds of cheering backers at a college in Dubuque.
He focused on assaulting President Bush with a sharply populist theme, saying: “This president has embraced a creed of greed.”
Kerry surges toward lead
Of the rivals, Kerry’s surge has been the most remarkable. A few weeks ago was shaking up a moribund effort and struggling for a message, but new energy has seized the campaign.
In the final weekend before the leadoff caucuses, the top campaigns were unleashing massive voter turnout operations, with Gephardt and Dean atop the organizational ranking.
More than 20 labor unions have backed Gephardt and hundreds of operatives have been dispatched to the state on his behalf. Dean was fielding an army of 3,500 volunteers, and he raised $300,000 on Friday alone from his Internet backers. Those supporters have a track record of responding when Dean has faced troubles, and they were apparently once again rising to the task.
The stakes are high in Iowa because the caucuses are followed eight days later by the New Hampshire primary. That race also is too close to call, with many waiting to view the results in Iowa.
Kerry and Edwards were getting the getting the most backing of those who were making last-minute decisions, strategists said.
There are some who would benefit from a jumbled outcome in the leadoff caucuses. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman have opted to skip Iowa’s caucuses and focus exclusively on New Hampshire.
Polls show Clark making some gains there, and he would benefit if no candidate gets a clear win and the resulting momentum that can move the numbers in New Hampshire.