The first big contest of Campaign 2004 is tonight: the Iowa caucuses. Candidates pulling out all the stops had wives, children and stars by their side as they made their final pitches for a race so close, any of the top four contenders might win.
"We are going to win," said Rep. Dick Gephardt, echoing the hopes of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards in a contest impossible to predict.
As his three strongest rivals raced between Iowa's state lines, Dean sought to regain the political initiative with a trip to Plains, Georgia - where former President Carter answered campaign critics of Dean but stopped short of an endorsement.
Dean also unveiled a surprise guest upon his return to Iowa. After remaining in the political shadows for months, Dean's wife, Judy, made her first appearance on the campaign trail - after Dean was told it might help him win.
Judy Dean, known professionally as Dr. Judith Steinberg, prefers to stay out of politics. She told the crowd that she hasn't been able to come to Iowa as much as she'd like because she has a son in high school, a daughter in college and patients who depend on her daily.
Also making the rounds in Iowa is Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, persisting despite polls showing his support in the single digits. Similarly low numbers in Iowa are seen for the Rev. Al Sharpton, retired Army general Wesley Clark and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who have focused their strategies elsewhere.
The caucuses - local gatherings in 1,193 towns and cites across the state, in which candidates pledged to candidates are chosen - are held in public buildings, theaters, and in about 70 cases, in private homes.
In the closest caucus race since 1988, when Gephardt won by 4 percentage points, polls showed the four candidates in a statistical tie, but that didn't stop strategists from handicapping.
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, while thousands of backers knocked on doors of potential voters.
Hopes are 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 14-term Missouri congressman, in his last political race, 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," said Gephardt, who's banking on support from unions and working class voters. "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."
Kerry, his voice hoarse after long days of noisy campaign rallies, mingled his war-hero pitch with a sharply populist assault on "powerful monied interests," previewing for a crowd in Waterloo, Iowa, a theme he will use next week in New Hampshire to court independents.
Punctuating Kerry's pitch at his stops in Iowa were the people who appeared with him: Sen. Edward Kennedy; his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry; and Jim Rassman, a former Green Beret who says Kerry saved his life in Vietnam. Although a registered Republican, Rassman is now a volunteer for Kerry.
Edwards campaigned across the eastern half of the state, with an eye to the South.
"It is my back yard," the North Carolina senator said of the heavily GOP region. "And I will beat George Bush in my back yard."
Dean entered the year a clear front-runner, but lost his lead in Iowa after a rough week of political combat threatened his advantages in New Hampshire and elsewhere. Stung by criticism of his record on race relations, Medicare and trade, Dean said Monday he was tired of being the party's "pin cushion," and suddenly looked weak to voters drawn to his take-no-prisoners image.
Gephardt gambled with a midweek ad that questioned Dean's integrity. It worked - Dean's approval rating dropped and voters fell from his camp - but the strategy had an unintended effect. Suddenly, Edwards looked optimistic, Kerry presidential.
The result is no clear favorite, with 45 pledged delegates up for grabs in Iowa. Out of 4,322 total delegates, 2,162 gives a Democrat the nomination.
A Des Moines Register poll showed just 5 percent of potential voters undecided, but nearly half of those who have candidate preferences saying they could still be persuaded to vote for somebody else.
Leaving an Edwards speech Sunday, Bettie Spaight of Cedar Rapids said she had not yet picked a candidate.
"If we could have a little bit of each of them in one candidate, that would be ideal," Spaight said.
Dean sought to reclaim the initiative Sunday. His wife's appearance was designed to soften his blustery image while Carter addressed deeper political problems.
Her voice shaking, Dean's wife entered the spotlight with a five-sentence address. "I wanted to come today, I wanted to say thank you to Iowa and to support my husband for president," said the physician known professionally as Dr. Judith Steinberg.
She said she would have come sooner, but she has a son in high school, a daughter in college and patients who depend on her daily. Campaign manager Joe Trippi said Dean asked her to come to Iowa after Ruth Harkin, wife of Dean supporter and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, told him it might help.
Dean ended Sunday night the same way he planned to spend the final hours Monday before the evening caucuses - on a college campus. More than 1,000 people packed a ballroom at the University of Iowa to hear actress Janeane Garofalo and singer Joan Jett along with Dean, who said it's time to see if his Internet-based campaign can result in victory.
"This is it," he said in a voice hoarse from rally supporters all day. "We need your help."