RAY SUAREZ: As the clock ticks toward the start of the big presidential election year, the candidates are all sharing the same New Year’s resolution: to start 2008 with a win in Iowa. Judy Woodruff reports.
FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R), Arkansas: I’d rather run a marathon than a 5K, because I’m not a fast runner, but I can go distances.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Mike Huckabee may prefer marathons, but right now he’s trying to sprint to the finish line in Iowa. With the caucuses here just three days away, Huckabee is virtually tied with rival Mitt Romney in the Republican contest.
A new MSNBC-McClatchy poll shows Romney with a slight advantage over Huckabee, while a Reuters-C-SPAN-Zogby poll has Huckabee first.
The close race has triggered a new ad war between the candidates, with Romney on Iowa television taking on Huckabee’s record while governor of Arkansas.
FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R), Massachusetts: I’m Mitt Romney and I approve this message.
ANNOUNCER: Two good men.
ANNOUNCER: But who is ready to make tough decision?
ANNOUNCER: Mike Huckabee? Soft on government spending, he grew a $6 billion government into a $16 billion government, backed in-state tuition benefits for illegals, and granted 1,033 pardons and commutations, including 12 murders.
JUDY WOODRUFF: On NBC yesterday, Huckabee responded directly to the attacks.
MIKE HUCKABEE: Mitt Romney is running a very desperate and, frankly, a dishonest campaign.
JUDY WOODRUFF: His campaign was just about to start airing ads of its own critical of Romney, but Huckabee announced today he had changed his mind, would pull that ad, and run a positive one instead. We asked him about this while he was getting a hair cut.
MIKE HUCKABEE: Just didn’t feel right about it, Judy. Just felt like, you know, that we were just jumping down the same mud hole everybody else was in. Just decided it wasn’t worth it.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Why did you want it in the first place?
MIKE HUCKABEE: Same reason everybody runs it. You think you’ve got to, if you’re going to counterpunch against negative stuff that’s hurting you. And, you know, it’s pretty clear that some of the negative stuff has hurt us. I mean, we realize that.
But I think we hopefully made the right decision. Here’s the thing: I know whether politically I made the right decision, I don’t know that. Personally, I know I made the right decision. I feel totally at ease with what we did. I mean, I know I can put my head on the pillow tonight. I’m going to sleep sound.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: I think the important thing is for me to hear from you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, John McCain is fending off attacks from Romney, as well. McCain’s campaign released an ad in New Hampshire questioning Romney’s criticism of McCain on immigration.
ANNOUNCER: John McCain reacts to Mitt Romney’s negative attacks.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: You know, I find it ironic Mitt Romney would attack me on the issue of immigration. This is the same Mitt Romney who called my plan, quote, “reasonable.”
A dead heat among Democrats
JUDY WOODRUFF: As for the Democrats, the race in Iowa remains a dead heat among three candidates, with the final few days focused on voter turnout.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: How many people are still undecided about who they're going to caucus for? Don't be bashful. Raise your hands. All right, guys, you see that? There's our marks.
JUDY WOODRUFF: At an event in the town of Perry today, volunteers for Barack Obama worked hard to sign up potential supporters for Thursday night caucuses.
In Keokuk, Hillary Clinton also urged her backers to turn out Thursday night.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: So I'm asking you to caucus for me. I'm asking that on Thursday night you join your friends, your family, your neighbors, and stand up and say that you want me to be your next president.
JUDY WOODRUFF: John Edwards finished second here in 2004 and yesterday told CBS's Bob Schieffer he expects to improve on that.
FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), Presidential Candidate: We have huge momentum on the ground. I mean, this is something -- it's palpable. I mean, I go to my events. The crowds are overflowing. They're spilling out the doors. There's a huge amount of energy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The MSNBC-McClatchy poll shows Obama and Clinton in a statistical tie among the Democrats, with Edwards narrowly out in front for the first time since the summer. The Reuters-C-SPAN-Zogby poll showed Clinton slightly ahead.
In Perry, Obama again made the case that he represents the best opportunity for change.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: There are those who argue that they should be elected and they will bring about change because they know how to play the game better in Washington.
But I have to say, we don't need somebody who knows how to play the game better. We need to put an end to the game-playing in Washington. That's why I'm running for president of the United States of America.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Clinton responded at her midday event in Keokuk.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Now, everyone running for president is talking about change, and I believe we've got to have change. Everyone agrees with that.
Some people think you bring about change by demanding it, and some people think you bring about change by hoping for it. I think you bring about change by working really, really hard every single day. That's how change happens in a life; that's how change happens in a business, in a community, and a country.
JUDY WOODRUFF: For his part, Edwards yesterday said he was best prepared to fight for the middle and working class.
JOHN EDWARDS: I think that we have an epic fight in front of us. And I absolutely believe to my soul that this corporate greed and corporate power has an ironclad hold on our democracy.
And if we don't take that hold away, it will be impossible to have universal health care, energy transformation, trade and tax policy that actually works for the American people and for the middle class.
JUDY WOODRUFF: For New Year's Eve, the candidates will be showing up at parties, but all of them aimed squarely at growing their turnout Thursday night.
An update from Des Moines
RAY SUAREZ: And Judy joins us live from Polk County Convention Center in Des Moines, the media Mecca for the Iowa caucuses.
And, Judy, let's talk about the Democrats first. That bunched pack at the front -- Obama, Edwards, Clinton or Clinton, Obama, Edwards, or whatever the order is -- they've been in the front for a couple of weeks now, but that doesn't mean that nothing is changing inside that trio, does it?
JUDY WOODRUFF: No, it doesn't, Ray. And you're right. I am here at the convention center, where we're going to hear the results on Thursday night. We're just here a little bit early; that's why this place is so empty.
But you're right. It doesn't mean nothing has changed. The three are still very tightly running together in the polls. One poll shows John Edwards moving up.
And there's a lot of talk about, well, there's some momentum with Edwards, but at the same time we have to warn anyone who's looking at these polls they're notoriously unreliable at a holiday like this one, Christmas. And second of all, trying to predict the outcome of a caucus is always dangerous.
But what has changed, Ray, is the messages of these candidates has really solidified in the last week or so. All three of them are talking change, but what's different is that they've honed in on what is their definition of change.
For Hillary Clinton, it's "I've got the knowledge and the experience. I can make the change happen from day one."
For Barack Obama, "I've got new ideas and I'm a unifier. I can bring together the warring sides out there in Washington and around the country."
And for John Edwards, he says, "Literally, I'm going to blow the place up. I'm coming to fight." It's a much more populist anti-corporate message.
So that is what we're seeing. At the same time, Ray, we don't really see anybody breaking away from the pack.
The mechanics of a caucus
RAY SUAREZ: Well, with those three inside the margin of error, let's talk a little bit about mechanics, what it takes to win in Iowa, because a caucus is so different from a balloting day.
JUDY WOODRUFF: It is very different. And we talked about this on the NewsHour, as all of our viewers know. What makes it different is that you not only go and place a mark on a piece of paper; you have to commit several hours on a cold night in January, leave your home, and be there.
There's no absentee balloting at a caucus. That means each one of these campaigns is pouring unprecedented staff and money into getting people out of their homes and to the caucuses.
For the Edwards campaign, a lot of focus on people who have already caucused in the past, who know how it's done, especially out in the rural areas of the state. That's their principal focus and beyond.
For Barack Obama, it's bringing new people to the table. In many cases, it's the younger Iowans, but it's also people who are just new to the political process.
And, finally, Hillary Clinton going after women, going after older voters. They all have their own particular demographic, if you will, that they're going after.
But going door to door, e-mailing, we are seeing a kind of sophisticated outreach and an amount of money spent in the state we've never seen before.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, to the Republicans, it's gotten pretty tough, direct, and it seems at times personal between the former governors, Romney and Huckabee.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Indeed, and you just saw that in the piece. Romney has been going after Mike Huckabee -- Romney had it all to himself here for a while. And then, about a month ago, Mike Huckabee started making headway, the former Arkansas governor.
Romney is now fighting back. He's on the air with negative ads criticizing Huckabee. And just now, just in the last few days, Huckabee has decided he's going to fight back.
Today he did something fairly unusual. He called a news conference and said, "Well, I was going to run this ad critical of Governor Romney, but I've decided I'm going to pull it back, because I don't think it's the right thing to do to get down in the mud."
But at the same time, he showed the ad to reporters, so the point was made, in a way, he's able to have it both ways. He's able to show what he was going to say, at the same time he can take the high road.
But that's where you're seeing all the attention on the Republican side, Ray. And even the other candidates in the Republican race concede that these two are fighting it out for number one and number two.
A small turnout, large influence
RAY SUAREZ: Tremendous number of candidates running around the state trying to connect with voters, tremendous amount of money being spent, but not to bring a mass turnout, is that fair to say?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we looked at the population numbers of Iowa, Ray. It's something like three million people almost live in this state. Maybe 8 percent of them, we are told, are going to turn out for these caucuses.
The Republicans are saying they hope to have 85,000, maybe 90,000 people. The Democrats are aiming for 150,000, the most optimistic projection 200,000 people. But that is still a really small percentage of Iowans who will turn out.
And yet they will have an outsized influence on this campaign. All eyes are on Iowa this Thursday night.
And, finally, just another point, there's more enthusiasm here on the Democratic side. As I just said, the Democrats looking at 150,000 and up; the Republicans settling for less than 100,000. There's just more interest right now and excitement on the Democratic side, and, frankly, that reflects what we're seeing around the country among Democrats.
RAY SUAREZ: Judy Woodruff from Polk County, Iowa, she'll be joining us from there for the rest of the week. Thanks a lot.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.