New Year's Eve, Iowa-Style

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Andy Kropa / Redux

An Iowa woman wears her support of Hillary Clinton on her chest.

It seems as though the New Year's party in Iowa has already come and gone: Over the past month, presidential hopefuls have paraded a Who's Who of Hollywood celebrities through the state — from Oprah Winfrey to Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins — hoping to draw crowds and make their case. Iowans have delighted in getting the rare glimpse of a favorite star or scoring an autograph, but come Dec. 31, three nights before the caucuses, the star wattage will have dimmed and most candidates will be earnestly glad-handing, rather than gamboling about.

For most campaigns, New Year's will involve a lot of work (unlike Christmas, it's a secular holiday, which gives candidates a free pass to stay on the job) — they'll be entering the final sprint to the Jan. 3 caucuses — though most events on Jan. 1 start noticeably late in the day, just in case. Several campaigns considered throwing big bashes with marquee entertainment, but they scratched their plans, worried that glitzy parties wouldn't seem very "Iowan" and that the crowds who turn out on New Year's Eve may not be inclined to come back on caucus day. And, as many candidates have learned, entertainment and politics generally don't mix well — most recently John Edwards got booed when he took the stage at a Des Moines John Cougar Mellencamp concert. People will spend good money to have fun, or attend a rally to learn something, but few would enjoy a stumping politician encroaching on their paid entertainment.

Most candidates have heeded those concerns. Edwards, a former North Carolina Senator, Illinois Senator Barack Obama and Delaware Senator Joe Biden all plan to spend the holiday privately with their families in Des Moines, after campaigning during the day. Senator Chris Dodd will hold a low-key gathering in Dubuque. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is expected to spend the evening with his wife, Anne, and other family members in Waterloo. And former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson has planned several events during the day, finishing up in the Des Moines area — but his staff is still trying to decide what he'll do that night.

Three candidates, meanwhile, have planned big celebrations. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee will hold a bash at the Val Air ballroom (which you might remember as the site of Howard Dean's unfortunate 2004 primal scream) in West Des Moines, with his buddy, martial arts star Chuck Norris. The campaign is trying to book a band with which Huckabee, a bass player, could jam. Hillary Clinton and husband, Bill, will host a party across town featuring the band Big Head Todd and the Monsters. And former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is throwing a fete for supporters and volunteers with three local bands at the Des Moines Quality Inn, where he'll offer a countdown toast.

But the real party will be downtown, where hundreds of national media have snapped up reservations at Des Moines' best restaurants. Want to dine at Lucca, an East Village hotspot, or swanky 801 Steak House? You'll have to elbow out New York Times and New Yorker reporters, along with the guests of two TV networks that have arranged for private seating. For the hundreds of less moneyed reporters in town for the holiday, Carrie Giddins, the spokeswoman for the Iowa Democratic Party, and Mary Tiffany, her GOP counterpart, have joined forces to throw "Raucous Before the Caucus," a big bash with a jazz band at the Temple for the Performing Arts downtown — the $25 entrance fee gets journos a taste of Iowa, including State Fair favorites like fried Twinkies and corn dogs.

Iowans are reveling in the influx of thousands of media, staffers, volunteers and others, who are planning to usher in 2008 in Iowa. "We expect a lot more activity this year," said Des Moines Mayor T. M. Franklin Cownie, a Democrat who has endorsed Obama. "All the restaurants in the downtown area are hopping. It's going to be exciting for us."

Missing out on the Iowa festivities this year: Arizona Senator John McCain, who will ring in the New Year with a series of town hall meetings in New Hampshire, squeezed in between two Iowa trips. Congressman Dennis Kucinich will also be absent; he plans to hold a party in New Hampshire. As for Congressman Ron Paul's campaign, several calls and emails to his camp went unanswered. And former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani will be celebrating in — where else? — New York City.