DES MOINES, Iowa — Uplifting appeals largely replaced stinging insults Tuesday as Democratic and Republican candidates did the only thing left to do in Iowa races that are too close to call — encourage supporters to vote for them.
“The polls look good, but understand this — the polls are not enough. The only thing that counts is whether or not you show up to caucus,” Democrat Barack Obama told a fired-up crowd of young and old packed into a high school gymnasium.
Amid murmurs of “Amen!” at a pizza parlor in Sergeant Bluff, Republican Mike Huckabee urged hundreds: “Don’t go alone. Take people with you. Fill up your car. Rent a van. Hijack your church’s bus, whatever you’ve got to do to get people to the caucus who are going to vote for me.”
Candidates made the pitch repeatedly as they canvassed the state for Thursday’s caucuses, the first votes of the presidential nominating process. At least 130,000 Democrats and 80,000 Republicans are expected to participate in 1,781 neighborhood meetings at schools, fire stations and community centers across Iowa on what is forecast to be a clear but cold night.
New polls show both races competitive, the outcomes extraordinarily unpredictable.
Among Democrats, Obama, an Illinois senator, is fighting with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York for the lead as former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina gives them strong chase. Two former governors, Huckabee of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, are vying for first on the Republican side.
Given the tightness, turning out voters will be critical.
Thus, hordes of volunteers made thousands of get-out-the-vote phone calls Tuesday, the campaigns rolled out uplifting television ads and the candidates made their pitches on the first day of 2008. The efforts were intended to maximize media exposure and voter outreach.
All but one candidate, Romney, shunned the negativity that spiked in recent weeks.
Obama, Clinton and Edwards played nice. Huckabee made good on a promise to clean up his act, the day after he held a news conference to say he wouldn’t run a critical ad against Romney — but then showed it to a room full of reporters and cameramen.
“It does remind you a bit of a person who stands up and says ‘I’m not going to call my opponent any names, but here are the names I’d call him if I were going to call him names,”’ Romney told reporters in Johnston.
With two days left in the campaign, Romney continued his ads against Huckabee. He also assailed Huckabee’s defense of his own failure to read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran last month.
For the most part, candidates spent New Year’s Day trying to energize supporters.
In the Des Moines area, Romney combined football and politics at a series of “House Party Huddles.” At an Elks Lodge in Cedar Rapids, Huckabee pulled out a bass guitar and played “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Mustang Sally” with a singer and drummer, a warm-up, perhaps, for his appearance tonight with Jay Leno.
Obama’s family was enthusiastic, buoyed by a Des Moines Register poll that showed him in the lead. His wife, Michelle, talked about “when Barack is the next president of the United States,” and he referred to her as “the next first lady of the United States.”
His chief rival, Clinton, campaigned with her 88-year-old mother, Dorothy Rodham, and daughter, Chelsea, in tow as she worked to solidify her already strong support among female voters. Her husband, former President Clinton, campaigned separately, joking at one event that he was missing out on a day of football games and was being “the quintessential indolent American male on New Year’s Day.”
Edwards also brought his wife and two children along for the final push, a “marathon for the middle class” during which he will continue to hammer away at pocketbook issues on an overnight drive to energize backers and deliver them to the caucuses.
“We hope for the next 36 hours that all of you will be as focused and energized as we are,” he said, beginning the tour with a rally before about 500 people at the student union at Iowa State University in Ames.