Battle of Iowa rages as McCain rises

White House foes chased last undecided voters ahead of Thursday’s dead-heat first nominating clashes in Iowa, as comeback Republican John McCain grabbed a new poll lead in the next key state, New Hampshire.

In the penultimate full day on Tuesday on the trail before the Iowa caucuses, Democrat Barack Obama basked in a poll giving him a surprise seven-point lead in Iowa, but rival Hillary Clinton refused to cede any ground.

“We stand on the brink of something very, very special here in Iowa,” Obama told 400 cheering supporters thrilled by a trademark soaring speech delivered in a crammed school gymnasium.

“Now, after 10 months, it looks like it might just work ... the polls look good,” he said, but warned pumped-up supporters against complacency.

In an another significant move, long-shot Democrat Dennis Kucinich instructed his backers to switch to Obama in caucus meetings where he did not meet a 15% support threshold to be allowed to compete.

Second-choice preferences of activists who favour minor candidates often play a crucial role in deciding who wins the caucuses.

Arizona Senator John McCain, meanwhile, registered his first opinion-poll lead in the Republican race in New Hampshire, which with Iowa makes up a one-two punch with the potential to shape Republican and Democratic nominees.

The 7News/Suffolk University poll had McCain ahead of rival Mitt Romney 31% to 25% in the north-eastern state, after being written off earlier this year over a cash crunch and unpopular stands on Iraq and illegal immigration.

“This is going to come down to the wire and people are not going to make up their minds until the very end,” McCain told CNN in New Hampshire.

In an unexpected move, McCain scheduled a new last-ditch visit to Iowa, reflecting his growing confidence and a Des Moines register poll that had him in third in the state, where he was thought to have little appeal.

Candidates also unveiled new, inspirational television advertisements, targeting voters watching traditional New Year’s Day college football games.

“Many are pessimistic, I am not ... our next president must unleash the promise and innovation of the American people,” said Romney, in a sunny ad in sharp contrast with his negative attacks spots on his rivals.

The former Massachusetts governor, is now under severe pressure with ex-Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee ahead of him in some Iowa polls and McCain rising in New Hampshire.

Romney likely needs victories in both states to build up heat behind a nationwide challenge.

Clinton’s top strategist, meanwhile, hit back at Obama in the war of political spin over polls, seizing on two surveys showing her leading.

“Voters should understand this is a very close race, and that their participation on caucus night could make all of the difference,” Mark Penn said.

Clinton aides said a register survey, which had Obama on 32%, the former first lady on 25% and ex-senator John Edwards on 24%, overstated the role independent voters would play in the caucuses.

Had a 2004 turnout model been used, Clinton would have led by two points, they said.

Deepening the confusion, two new polls published on Tuesday had Clinton leading.
A Zogby poll had Clinton leading Obama 30% to 26%. A CNN/Opinion Research poll has her on 33%, Obama on 31% and John Edwards on 22%.

The spat between the two camps revealed the possible key to the caucuses—if Obama can get the legions of previously fickle young and first-time caucus goers to show up on Thursday, he has a good chance of victory.

Clinton, though also targeting first-time caucus goers, holds events packed with older, and female voters—a demographic more likely to caucus in large numbers.

Edwards, meanwhile, embarked on an exhausting 36-hour sprint to the caucuses, which included through-the-night visits to outlying campaign offices.

Among Republicans, the register poll had former Arkansas governor Huckabee holding his lead on 32% over Romney on 26%.—AFP

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