Will the Campaign Stop for Christmas?

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Jason Reed / Reuters

A snowman, complete with Barack Obama buttons for eyes, sits outside the Des Moines campaign headquarters of the Democratic presidential contender.

With the Iowa caucuses scheduled for only two days after New Year's, the state is experiencing a holiday season like never before. Neighborhoods are awash in holiday lights and political campaign signs. Mailboxes are stuffed with gift catalogues and candidates' five-point plans. Television ads selling toys, computers, cars and seed corn compete for time with commercials selling Hillary, Obama, Rudy and Huckabee.

The unprecedented close timing between the holidays and the caucuses is producing not only a clash between the sacred and profane but new complications and challenges for the candidates as well. Should they be home with their families for Christmas, or is the race too tight and the time too short for even a brief hiatus? What about all those political ads flooding Iowa's airwaves, about 700 of which are airing on any given day in December? Will they take a breather during Christmas? Will there be a moratorium on attack ads, especially on Christmas Eve and Day, when many Iowans will be in church or traveling anyway — only to resume the assault on December 26?

Most of the candidates are heading home for Christmas, typically for just a couple of days — though at least one, Christopher Dodd (who moved his family into the state for the duration) will be celebrating Christmas in Iowa. As for the ad blitz, it seems to be proceeding unabated.

Because candidate' ads, by law, get preference, local stations have had to bump some regular local advertisers from highly rated programs like the local news — which doesn't always go over well, says Steve Lake, national sales manager of KCRG-TV, an ABC affiliate in Cedar Rapids. As of mid-December, $17.3 million has been spent on those Iowa ads in 2007, compared with $2.3 million for the same period during the run-up to the 2004 caucuses. "It's kind of a perfect storm of advertising demand on a supply that doesn't change," says Lake.

The regular folks all those ads are targeted at have other questions to ponder this time around. Will Bobbie Edwards (John's mother) e-mail her figgy pudding recipe to potential Iowa supporters? (She offered her mac n' cheese recipe at Thanksgiving.) Will Iowans give the gift of a signed Romney Family Christmas photo, available from the UltiMitt holiday gift guide?

More seriously, do we Iowans dare answer our telephones? Sure, it might be a relative calling with tidings of comfort and joy. But it also might be "Donna" or "John" from Arkansas, calling (as I've discovered here in Des Moines) with a darker message: an automated pro-Romney "robo-call" that ends with the signoff, "I know Mike Huckabee, that's why I'm supporting Mitt Romney."

And once we gather around the holiday table, is the meal destined to erupt into a mini-caucus? Could be, says Xian Zhang, 19, of Urbandale, who is "seesawing" between Edwards and Obama while her mother is supporting Hillary Clinton. "People are debating these candidates and their positions. Holidays are a great setting for that — they fuel each other," says Zhang, whose family, originally from China, just became U.S. citizens and are first-time voters.

The early caucus is also threatening to eat into the traditional Christmas vacation of Iowa's college students. Many out-of-state students plan to return to Iowa early from their winter breaks to caucus or work as gophers for media outlets from the BBC to Fox News. Allison Amphlett, 21, is prepared to drive four hours from her parents' Wisconsin home back to Grinnell College in the town of Grinnell to caucus — though "probably not if there's ice."

Over 100 Grinnell students — almost 10% of the student body — are expected to return to campus to caucus well before classes resume on January 21. Amphlett is taking up the college's offer to bunk in the school gymnasium on caucus night. Other universities are temporarily opening dorms or offering discounted hotel rooms. "We're going to be sleeping on the floor," says Amphlett. "It's only one night It's a very exciting time."

Sarah Hall, 20, a junior at Drake University in Des Moines, plans to drive five hours from her parents' Illinois home to caucus — although she'll stay with a friend rather than camp out in Drake's student center. "It's important enough that giving up part of my break isn't a big deal," says Hall, who is supporting Obama.

Even family visiting for the holiday will be getting in on the act. Joan Richardson, 75, of St. Louis, picked caucus time to visit her family here — specifically so she also can visit with Romney, Huckabee, Edwards, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd. (She already caught a glimpse of Bill Richardson — no relation — at a Des Moines school last summer.) "I may not be able to sit down, I'll be running around so much," says Richardson, who also hopes to tag along with relatives to watch an actual caucus. "I've never been this interested in an election."

With Reporting by Jay Newton-Small