SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: You will choose the next president of the United States of America, if you have the commitment and the energy to turn out.
JUDY WOODRUFF: With less than three weeks to go until the first votes are cast by Democrats in the 2008 presidential nominating process, the candidates are constantly reminding Iowans of the important role they play in the American political process.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: So it’s a pretty heavy responsibility that you have assumed for yourself. You know, you’re kind of kicking the tires and looking under the trunk and seeing whether we can go the distance.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Polls here show three frontrunners bunched in a tight race: Senator Barack Obama, former Senator John Edwards, and Senator Hillary Clinton. But recently Clinton has lost ground with the one part of the electorate that was assumed to be her strongest suit.
Ann Selzer directs the Iowa poll for the Des Moines Register.
J. ANN SELZER, The Iowa Poll: In our polls, it’s looking like Barack Obama may be stealing the women’s vote from Senator Clinton. She was very strong, but I think, again, because he brings a message of inclusion and bringing people together, that really strikes at where women’s values go. And I think they weren’t sure he could win, and when he started gaining some momentum, they came on board.
Women voters targeted
JUDY WOODRUFF: Women are coveted, because four years ago they made up 54 percent of caucusgoers here. And in this election, they seemed to be falling for Clinton, the first woman ever to have a serious shot at the White House.
Christie Vilsack, the former first lady of Iowa, acknowledges the race is fluid, but says Clinton still holds strong appeal for women voters.
CHRISTIE VILSACK, Clinton Campaign: Women who may not have been engaged before are really getting engaged, and partly it's because they see her as a role model. They see her as a champion, I think. They see her as the champion who really will try to help solve their problems, because I think they perceive her as a problem-solver, as someone who can really make change in their lives, and it makes them more willing to participate in that.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Indeed, Obama strategists say last weekend's road show with Oprah Winfrey was an effort by the Illinois senator to counter Clinton's natural appeal to women.
GORDON FISCHER, Obama Campaign: Bringing in Oprah, and obviously Michelle Obama is a critically important part of his campaign.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Gordon Fischer is the former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party.
GORDON FISCHER: I think that is an attempt to counterbalance the presumed gender appeal of Senator Clinton. It remains to be seen. Right now, I think women caucusgoers are up for grabs, and we won't really know until January 3rd what the final verdict is.
Women split between candidates
JUDY WOODRUFF: Carley Grobeen, a restaurant manager, is leaning toward Clinton.
CARLEY GROBEEN, Restaurant Manager: I feel like her history in politics has allowed her to know more foreign leaders and, ultimately, that will give her a leg up, in addition to the fact that she is a woman and that is a really important thing.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that a big deal?
CARLEY GROBEEN: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I think even 10 years ago people wouldn't have envisioned the fact that we could have elected a female leader, and now we have a huge, you know, percentage of people that are rallying behind her. That's wonderful.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Virginia Underwood is a strong supporter.
VIRGINIA UNDERWOOD, Clinton Supporter: I think I'm going with experience. And although Obama is very charismatic, I think Hillary has more basic knowledge and experience. I think she's a very strong woman. I think she's very intelligent. And I think she can do the job.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But many other women are conflicted.
J. ANN SELZER: Women are really divided about what it is that they want to make happen in this election. They, obviously, many of them, wish for a strong woman candidate. They don't feel that's the only reason to support Senator Clinton, but it's a little piece of it.
There are other women who say, "I want to be sure that the first woman is the right woman, and that she will succeed," and I think they are just nervous that Hillary Clinton brings baggage that will make her candidacy difficult if she were to win the nomination and to make her presidency difficult, as well.
JUDY WOODRUFF: That was exactly the feeling expressed by Cecile Owings and Eileen Fischer, nurses from Iowa City who are leaning Edwards or Obama.
CECILE OWINGS, Nurse: I would like to see a woman in there. I just don't know that she's the one. I agree, I think that she has too many negatives, and I'm afraid she might not be electable, for one thing.
EILEEN FISCHER, Nurse: I think Hillary would probably make some changes, too, but I just get this feeling of honesty from John Edwards. And I'm a little concerned about the corporate influences with Hillary.
Strong turnout key to victory
JUDY WOODRUFF: Whatever voters' preferences are, it won't matter unless they actually show up on caucus night, January 3rd. Iowa is different from most states, in that votes have to be cast in person at one of almost 1,800 Democratic Party precinct caucus locations spread all over the state.
They can last up to two hours, and there are complicated rules that make many voters' second choice potentially important. Terrence Neuzil is the supervisor of Johnson County, Iowa, and supporter of John Edwards.
TERRENCE NEUZIL, Edwards Campaign: It is a total political game. This campaign, John Edwards's campaign, we know the strategies. We know the game. We know that you have to go out and you have to find folks who maybe are leaning on a candidate like a Biden or a Dodd or a Richardson or a Kucinich, and you've got to make sure that they know about the Edwards' campaign, because we are pretty certain that those folks are going to have a hard time coming up with enough people in their group to be viable. We are going to go pick them up.
CAMPAIGN VOLUNTEER: You've got to pick someone that can win. And, I mean, Edwards has the best chance of beating the Republicans.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The Edwards camp is banking on its early and thorough organization to turn out voters, especially in the all-important rural areas. Edwards has the benefit of having done this four years ago.
Clinton campaign strategists acknowledge they didn't have that advantage.
CHRISTIE VILSACK: She came late to Iowa and had never done this before, hadn't done a caucus process. Her husband wasn't here for the caucus, so I think that she's doing very well, considering. The great thing is that she's gone out to people's homes and she's winning their hearts and minds.
JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the big question marks is just how many young people will turn out this year? Obama has drawn huge crowds at universities and energized young people to volunteer on his campaign.
But young people don't have a strong track record of turning out. Four years ago, they made up only 4 percent of caucusgoers. And this year, the caucus is happening so early that colleges will still be on Christmas break.
That's not going to stop these young women we met at a popular coffee shop near the Drake University campus. Chelsea Hicks is an out-of-state student.
CHELSEA HICKS, Student: I'm caucusing for Barack, because he is a candidate that I believe in.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You're from Portland, Oregon.
CHELSEA HICKS: Yes, I'm going home for Christmas, and so I've already bought my tickets to fly back, and I'll be back here, and I'm for sure caucusing. It's that important to me.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Lacee Groetken from Le Mars, Iowa, will also return.
LACEE GROETKEN, Student: I actually have an internship in Chicago. A lot of my friends are from that area, and so we're all going to come back together, if I can get off work. So hopefully we'll all be traveling back together, carpooling and staying in the area to go to the caucuses.
JUDY WOODRUFF: While the Obama strategists are hopeful that many students will do the same, they aren't counting on them for a victory.
GORDON FISCHER: There's no question that it's an organizational challenge to get young people out, but we're looking at young people, the Obama campaign is looking at young people and independents and Republicans, non-traditional caucusgoers, as icing on the cake.
We're not forgetting to bake the cake itself. We're going ahead and reaching out to traditional caucusgoers. We're doing it every day, all day long. That's the majority of our efforts.
Future far from certain
JUDY WOODRUFF: With polls showing that nearly 50 percent of likely caucusgoers still haven't made up their minds about whom to vote for, the campaigns will be working feverishly right through the Christmas season trying to make the case for their candidate and getting their supporters, once they commit to the caucuses.
Anna Mary Mueller, a regular caucusgoer from Iowa City, is the type of voter every campaign would love.
ANNA MARY MUELLER, Iowa Caucusgoer: I wrote my Christmas letter this year on how to go to a caucus.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And what did you say?
ANNA MARY MUELLER: Oh, I went through the whole thing. It's two pages, interspersed with my family news.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What's made a decision hard for many Iowa Democrats is they say there's something to like about all the candidates. There are few glaring differences on issues among them. So the challenge for the candidates is to stay likable, at least for the next three weeks, while spelling out why they are better than the others.