Counting the hours before Iowans kick off the closest caucus race here in years, candidates on Monday urged their supporters to ignore freezing temperatures and join what was expected to be a huge turnout.
Weeks of touting proposals and criticizing rivals in appearances across this farm state focused on getting people to precinct meetings from public buildings to private homes Monday night.
The four candidates locked in a statistical tie at the top of the polls — John Kerry, John Edwards, Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt — planned one more day of intense campaigning before moving on to New Hampshire and its opening primary next week.
"We all face the same test here," said Gephardt, the Missouri congressman who has said a loss might well end his campaign. "Everybody's got to do well or win. I think that's my test as well. I think I am going to win."
Kerry, who surged in polls last week, pledged to fight for support throughout the day. "Almost everybody was writing off my campaign three or four weeks ago," he told the CBS News Early Show. "I've always said there were three tickets out of Iowa and I was going to get one of them."
Kerry, who pushed his voice to the limit while campaigning, was forced to cancel many events Monday due to his strained voice.
Edwards contended his campaign could weather less than a first-place finish, pointing to a boost in interest in speeches relatively free of the sniping that has marked those of some of his rivals. He said in a television interview, "We've already accomplished so much here in Iowa, and the people's response to what I want to do has been amazing."
Dean, his front-runner status in question, said his base would remain strong regardless of the outcome of the caucuses.
"I think we're going to do fine. I think we're going to win tonight," he told ABC. "We can't beat George Bush with the same old folks we've been trying to beat him with. We've got to go back to our base, reach out to real Democrats and get them to go to the caucuses again."
Two other major contenders — Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark — skipped the caucuses to seek support for the New Hampshire primary Jan. 27.
By the numbers, Iowa's caucuses offered scant reward — first claim in a fight over 45 national convention delegates out of 4,322 who will attend next summer's national convention.
But Iowa Democrats have the power to confer more than that when they settle in for an evening of politicking in 1,993 precinct caucuses. They offer instant campaign credibility for the winner and potentially crippling setbacks for also-rans.
While the contenders spent months and millions wooing a single-state constituency, the final surveys judged the race too close to call.
The latest Zogby poll shows Kerry with a slim lead of 25 percent. Dean follows with 22 percent, Edwards has 21 percent and Gephardt garnered 18 percent. But the poll suggests the race is extremely fluid: The margin of error is 4.5 percent and 9 percent report themselves undecided.
CBS News notes that the Iowa caucus is very difficult to poll. It's hard to determine which voters will actually show up, and many political observers believe the candidate with the best get-out-the-vote operation has a considerable advantage - a factor that doesn't show up in polls.
Gephardt and Dean, a former Vermont governor, were given the edge there, while polls suggested Kerry and Edwards had late support coming their way.
"The Howard Dean organization is stronger, more sophisticated than anything I've seen in these caucuses," says Early Show political consultant Craig Crawford. "One example: They will have in every single one of the 2,000 precincts someone there with a list marking off the people who come who had said earlier in door knocking and phone calls that they were going to come and support Howard Dean.
"If they don't show up, they've got the organization to then dispatch a car to that person's house and say, 'Hey, you said you were coming to the caucus. Come on, we'll give you a ride.'"
Adding another element of uncertainty, a large percentage of potential caucus-goers told pollsters they might change their mind at the last minute.
Bettie Spaight of Cedar Rapids heard Edwards speak but said has yet to settle on a candidate. "If we could have a little bit of each of them in one candidate, that would be ideal," she said.
Edwards, a first-term senator from North Carolina, said he could defeat Mr. Bush where the president is strongest. "The South is not George Bush's backyard," he said of the Texas-reared president. "It is my backyard and I will beat George Bush in my backyard, and you can take it to the bank."
Dean sought to make the same point, traveling south during the day to attend church in Plains, Ga., with former President Carter. "It doesn't really matter what state is your home state. What matters is the message you present to the people," Carter said.
Kerry, accompanied by a man whose life he saved in combat, touted his experience as a Vietnam veteran and foreign policy credentials gained in nearly two decades in the Senate. He said Mr. Bush wants to turn the campaign into a referendum on the war in Iraq and the battle against terrorism.
If the president does, he said, "I have three words for you that they will understand. Bring it on."
Gephardt, with strong labor backing, has long claimed he is the Democrat with the best chance to beat Bush in midwestern industrial states. The Missouri congressman added that he is the candidate who can appeal to hard-pressed working families, and punctuated his claim with a remark that drew laughter.
"I'll be the only person who serves eight years in the White House and is still paying college loans" for his children's education, he said.