Into the Caucus Rooms

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Jeff Haynes / Reuters

Iowans gather for caucuses inside Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa

Iowans will cast the most feverishly contested votes in the strange, 35-year history of the state's presidential caucuses tonight, and what makes the conclusion of this lengthy and expensive first chapter of the 2008 campaign most remarkable is that absolutely no one has any idea about the outcome.

And — for a few more hours at least — that goes for both the Democratic and Republican contests.

It is a fitting start to a campaign that began early last year with no annointed frontrunner-in-waiting in either party and is likely to remain closely fought and hard to call over the next 10 months.

Breaking all previous records, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards have spent tens of millions of dollars in Iowa, hiring hundreds of paid staffers and today offering rides and babysitting, even snow shovels, to get out the vote. Yet it remains anyone's guess who will come out on top when the votes are counted later this evening.

On the Republican side, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee lead a large field of candidates who on the whole have spent fewer days in the state — and less money on their races — than their Democratic rivals. Yet their contest, too, is neck and neck.

The key on the Democratic side is likely to be turnout: the more Iowans who turn out tonight to take part in the lengthy Democratic caucus process, the better it is likely to be for Obama, whose campaign is pitched in part to bringing into the Democratic fold a new generation of first-time voters and independents. The Clinton campaign, on the other hand, is claiming to have secret, untapped, strength among female, senior and Asian American communities in the state.

John Edwards, meanwhile, has spent more time in the state than anyone in either party and remains a popular second choice among likely caucus goers who don't favor him as their first choice, a key indicator in a process that can reward also-rans when third-tier candidates don't meet the 15% threshold at most caucus sites. "Its not just a question of who turns their voters out," said Joe Trippi, Edwards's campaign manager. "It's a question of who knows how to work the caucus system."

When the Democrats last caucused in 2004, nearly 123,000 Democrats attended. Party officials predict that turnout could top 150,000 tonight.

On the Republican side, where turnout is in general expected to be lighter and the field more spread out, every vote will count. Huckabee has courted evangelical voters, home schoolers and right to lifers since entering the race a year ago. Romney has made a more traditional appeal to Iowa's economic and social conservatives, and is expected to organize as many as 7,000 members of the Mormon Church who are expected to attend the caucuses. The entire GOP field has tussled over immmigration and how to combat it in a state where the issue tops GOP voters list of concerns.

While much of the media attention is focused on the still-imponderable outcome of the Obama/Clinton/Edwards fight, the grudge match between Romney and Huckabee was no less intriguing. Romney's camp claims to have made 12,000 calls to likely caucus-goers on Tuesday and another 22,000 on Wednesday, praying that organization will trump enthusiasm. David Woolcock, a financial and marketing analyst, told TIME at a Romney rally this week that he started as a Huckabee supporter because of his religious bent but came around to appreciating Romney's data-driven decision making style. "I'm a secular person, we should keep church church and government government. That sounds kind of liberal doesn't it? But I mean what matters the most is this world and this country."

Huckabee's camp, meanwhile, massaged and re-massaged its man's expectations all day. If he wins the state tonight, he will become a viable national candidate, capable of mounting a real challenge to the frontrunner in New Hampshire. But if he comes in second, he could be lost in the excitement as the campaign moves to New Hampshire, where John McCain is surging. "We don't have to finish first here for us to feel like we have been successful," Huckabee told reporters. "But if we finish first here, I think we have exceeded everyone's expectations."

Iowa is famous both for winnowing both parties' fields — and for nudging dark horses into the top tier. The contest has lifted, for the moment at least, former Arkansas governor Huckabee into the top ranks of the Republican race, as voters warmed to his downhome delivery and easy sense of humor. Iowa could also deliver a better-than-expected evening for Arizona Senator John McCain, who was given up nearly for dead a few months ago yet is now poised — but not guaranteed — to come in third in the GOP contest, behind Romney and Huckabee. (In another sign that the Arizona Senator is back — and sure to face the questions that come with being a front runner — McCain will appear this Sunday on NBC's Meet The Press.) Rudy Giuliani, for months the notional GOP frontrunner in national polls, has hardly contested the state.

Iowa hasn't been as kind to long-shot Democrats this year, though you wouldn't know it by the crowds in the last few days. The numbers at nearly every event in the final days have been so large that it can seem as if all the candidates have momentum, whether they actually do or not. Joe Biden has been drawing crowds of several hundred wherever he goes — unprecedented for Biden, and in most years a good omen. But since Democratic excitement is running at such a high pitch this year, it probably means far less this time around. Obama's crowds have been topping 2,000 in the last few days. His closing argument has turned on the question of who voters trust to make change. As he said on Wednesday, "The question for those of you who are undecided is, 'Who's best equipped to deliver change? Who is actually gonna make it change?' You can't argue that you are a master of a broken system in Washington...and that you are also the best agent to change the system. You can't be steeped in the conventional wisdom in something as profound as war and then argue you are best positioned to chart a new course in foreign policy. That's not how change works. You got to be for change before to be for change now."

Top officials of all campaigns, from both parties, were reluctant to make predictions in the final hours of the race, in part because even they were unable to see — or perhaps believe — evidence of late-breaking trends. But there were signs that Team Clinton knew that it might be fighting an uphill battle against Obama in Iowa. Clinton advisers had begun to play down expectations for a win over the last couple of days and even former President Bill Clinton told early Thursday morning that the primary process was a long one, noting he didn't win until the Georgia Primary, in March of 1992. "You just have to keep going," he said.

And on they will go, to New Hampshire, where the nation's first primary will take place Tuesday. Most of them, anyway.

With reporting by Ana Marie Cox and Michael Scherer/Des Moines and Rani Molla/Washington