Bickering to the last, the top four Democrats traded insults Sunday as they reached for the finish line in a close and caustic Iowa caucus race, the first step toward picking President Bush's rival.
"We are going to win," said Rep. Dick Gephardt, the same five-word refrain used by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards in a contest utterly impossible to call.
While four candidates raced between Iowa's state lines, Dean sought to regain the political initiative with a trip to Georgia, where former President Carter answered campaign critics of Dean, and a surprise guest upon his return. After months in the political shadows, Dean's wife, Judy, was making her first appearance on the campaign trail.
In the closest caucus race since 1988, when Gephardt won by 4 percentage points, a new Des Moines Register poll shows Kerry leading with 26 percent, followed by Edwards who has surged to 23 percent. Then comes Dean at 20 percent and Gephardt at 18 percent. The margin of error is plus or minus four percent, making the race too close to call.
The poll also finds that almost half the people who had a preference said they might change their mind by the time the caucus is held Monday night.
The closely watched Zogby tracking poll released today shows Kerry ahead by less than a hair at 24 percent, with Dean 23 percent, Gephardt at 19 and Edwards at 18. The direction of Gephardt's numbers in the poll have been down for several days in a row.
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.
Democrats agree that Dean and Gephardt have the strongest organizations, traditionally a key in the complicated caucus system, but Kerry and Edwards had the momentum in the race's final week.
Confidence abounded in the Dean campaign. "We think we have the best organization," the candidate told ABC's "This Week" in a taped interview. "We think we're going to win."
Hopes were high in the Kerry and Edwards campaigns, though aides said they couldn't predict whether their outgunned organizers could deliver enough votes on a cold caucus night.
Doubts seeped into the Gephardt camp, where a defeat would end all hopes for the presidency. The Missouri congressman showed no sign of quitting, rallying hundreds of union backers in the state capital.
"I don't need this job; I don't need this title," Gephardt said. "But America needs a leader who comes from a life experience of the people. Forget about me, I'm unimportant in this, I'm an instrument."
Entering the year a clear front-runner, Dean lost his lead in Iowa after a rough week of political combat that has threatened his advantages in New Hampshire, site of the Jan. 27 primary, and beyond.
He sought to change the subject from questions about his integrity and record as Vermont governor. His wife's appearance was designed to soften Dean's image while Carter addressed deeper political problems.
Rivals dismissed the campaign stops as gimmicks, keeping steady aim on Dean's policies and qualifications.
"This is not the time for on-the-job training or guessing about where a president might go on national security," Kerry told ABC's "This Week" as the candidates made the rounds of television news shows.
Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie checked out the crop of potential Bush rivals and declared them unfit. "They're not quite as vicious to each other as they are to President Bush, but they're getting close," he said in an interview at a downtown hotel.
Kerry renewed his criticism of Gephardt and Dean for proposing to repeal Bush's tax cuts, including those that favor the wealthy. Gephardt focused his aim on Dean.
"I just don't much like the campaign he has been running," the Missouri lawmaker told NBC's "Meet the Press."
Even Edwards, who rose to contention on the promise of a positive campaign, took a swipe at Wesley Clark, who skipped Iowa to build his New Hampshire campaign.
Saying he's been fighting for years on causes sacred to Southern voters, Edwards told CBS' "Face the Nation," "That's not where General Clark has been. He's been in a different place."
Clark and Kerry have cut deeply into Dean's once-massive lead in New Hampshire polls. Asked whether he, like Clark, would release his tax returns, Kerry snapped, "Long before Wesley Clark was a Democrat, I released all my tax returns for 20 years."
In New Hampshire, former Sen. George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic nominee, endorsed Clark and called him "the best of the lot."
Former President Carter stopped short of an endorsement, but answered critics of Dean's shoot-from-the-lip style.
"The fact that he was a strong and open advocate of peace whenever possible instead of war, and his outspoken nature, sometimes saying things that might have to be retracted, which I had to do as well when I ran for president, has made it very harmonious between me and him," Mr. Carter said.
Kerry spokesman Michael Meehan said the senator also had been invited by Mr. Carter to visit. "We declined for this week because we wanted to stay with Iowans," Meehan said.
Dean, an infrequent churchgoer who only recently talked about his faith in public, joined the former president for services in Plains, Ga., then called the former president a "moral model."
Mr. Carter dismissed suggestions that a northerner like Dean can't win in the South. He noted that he and Dean share an affinity for Job, who is beset by tragedies in the Bible.
"I couldn't believe all the accusations leveled against me" in politics, Mr. Carter said, echoing Dean's complaints.
Long-shot candidate Dennis Kucinich also focused on Iowa on the final day before the caucuses.