White House rivals hit finishing tape in Iowa

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and other White House hopefuls beseeched Iowans to vote to change America as they sought to land an early blow in Thursday’s crucial first 2008 nominating clash.

Both Democratic and Republican races were too close to call, before more than 200 000 Democratic and Republican activists cast their judgements in the fabled Iowa caucuses, which can nurture or crush presidential dreams.

Polls show an agonizingly close three-way dead-heat between Democrats Clinton, Obama and John Edwards, with turnout likely to be the decisive factor.

Republicans Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, meanwhile, jousted for top spot, with comeback sensation Senator John McCain, looking to snap up third to add to his surge in New Hampshire and sudden movement in national polls.

After the most dollar-soaked campaign in history, candidates blitzed the frigid Midwestern state and cosied into living rooms with intimate political advertisements sandwiched in primetime news shows.

“The question you have to ask yourself when you walk into that caucus tomorrow is this—who can take us in a fundamentally new direction?” asked Obama, the 46-year-old senator vying to be America’s first black president.

“I ask you to caucus tomorrow [Thursday], not just for me, but for your hopes; for your dreams; for the America you believe is possible.”

Clinton pledged to lead America in the opposite direction to that chosen by President George Bush.

“After seven long years of this administration, we finally have the opportunity for a new beginning,” said the former first lady in her closing ad, tilting at history with her bid to be the first woman president.

Clinton was also due to appear on late-night chat show star David Letterman’s first show back on air after a writers’ strike.

Edwards campaigned 36 hours straight in a “Marathon for the Middle Class” bus tour.

“There are people and corporations and powerful interests in Washington and all over this country who think their position in power on the top of the heap is inevitable and unchangeable,” said the former vice-presidential nominee.

“What I know is that when you rise up to take this country back for the middle class, you will be unstoppable.”

A Zogby daily tracking poll on Wednesday suggested a nervous night was in store for Democrats, putting Clinton tied at 28% with Obama, and both just two points ahead of Edwards.

In Iowa, Democratic caucus-goers can back another candidate if their first choice fails to clear a 15% entry bar in each of the about 1 800 caucus meetings through the state—so second place preferences could be crucial.

Among Republicans, the Zogby poll had former Arkansas governor Huckabee running at 28%, down a point, with Romney on 26%, up one.

Huckabee, who has been trading punches with former Massachusetts governor Romney for weeks, planned an unorthodox campaign swing—flying to California for Jay Leno’s late-night talk show, also back on air Wednesday.

McCain, meanwhile, moved into the lead in the Pew Research Centre’s nationwide survey of the Republican race with 22% support, 3% ahead of long time pace-setter Rudolph Giuliani.

McCain, a Vietnam War veteran, was back in Iowa on Wednesday, eyeing a possible third-placed finish, which would be a huge morale boost going into New Hampshire.

The key to the Democratic race looked to hang on whether Obama could get legions of previously fickle young and first-time caucus goers who flock to his campaign events to show up on Thursday.

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 still hoped to surge between the two rivals to victory.—AFP

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