As Iowa Democrats prepare to kick off the presidential nominating process in just three days, this year's caucuses are shaping up to be the closest - and most critical - in decades. Depending on who emerges next Monday night, the Democratic race could seem on the verge of being over - or else be blown wide open.
The race is already unusually turbulent, with Iowa polls dramatically tightening in the final days, and now showing Howard Dean in a virtual three-way tie with Dick Gephardt and John Kerry, with John Edwards close behind.
But the caucuses will present the first concrete test of each candidate's strength - from the appeal of his message, to the commitment of his supporters, to the muscle of his organizations.
And while Iowa's caucuses have long had a winnowing effect on the field, this year's contest is likely to have a greater impact than usual, due to the front-loaded primary calendar - which places New Hampshire just one week later, and a series of seven primaries the week after that.
If Iowans hand a big victory to Dr. Dean, it would give the former Vermont governor a significant boost heading into New Hampshire, and the chance to effectively end the race with an early one-two punch.
But if Dean loses here, or even if he just ekes out a victory, he could find himself facing a tough, protracted battle against as many as two or three surging opponents.
Indeed, some observers believe a Dean loss could even deal a near-fatal blow to his candidacy, endangering his chances in New Hampshire, where his lead, although strong, has been shrinking in the face of a surge by retired Gen. Wesley Clark.
"If Dean loses, Dean plummets," says John Zogby, an independent pollster who is producing a daily tracking poll in Iowa. "If Dean loses, there's going to be two people who've defied expectations ... and whoever the two guys are will really suck up the oxygen and dominate New Hampshire - so now you've got a three-way race."
History shows that losing in Iowa doesn't necessarily translate into losing the nomination. In 1988 and 1992 - the most competitive Democratic primary cycles in recent years - the eventual nominees got little traction in the Hawkeye State (Michael Dukakis placed third here, while Bill Clinton essentially ceded the state to Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who was running for president that year).
But strategists agree that a better-than-expected Iowa performance can be a source of momentum in the states that follow - as in 2000, when Al Gore used a big win in Iowa to beat back a surging Bill Bradley in New Hampshire.
A strong showing in the caucuses "answers the viability question," says one Democratic aide. "And Iowa can provide a tremendous spark if those pieces fall into place and you get a strong surge."
Moreover, unlike past years, some analysts speculate that a poorer-than-expected performance in Iowa might have a more severe effect than usual on a campaign, because of the frontloaded primary schedule.
"You have a situation where somebody who stumbles doesn't have time to recover," says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. "That makes Iowa and New Hampshire both even more important."
Iowa has already pushed one candidate out of the race even before the voting starts: Thursday, Carol Moseley Braun dropped out and threw her support behind Dean.
Certainly, Dean's current position appears far more precarious than it did even a week ago, with the former governor's level of support seeming to stall or even decline. The campaign's concern over the fast-changing dynamics has been made evident by an abrupt shift in strategy: After weeks of trying to maintain a front-runner's detachment and stay above the fray, Dean has gone back on the attack - blanketing the state with a hard-hitting ad that reminds Iowans that Gephardt, Kerry, and Edwards all voted in favor of the Iraq war.
Indeed, the race in Iowa may well come down to two competing factors: Iowa Democrats' ongoing opposition to the war in Iraq versus their desire to nominate the candidate they believe has the greatest chance of defeating President Bush.
Dean's lead is being eroded by undecided voters throwing their support to Kerry and Edwards, says Mr. Zogby - a trend he sees as driven largely by persistent doubts about Dean's electability. When Iowa Democrats are asked how likely it is that Dean can beat Bush, 30 percent say not likely. But when asked how likely it is that any other Democrat can beat Bush, only 12 percent say not likely. "That's the gap right there," says Zogby.
Experts note that polls in Iowa can be notoriously unreliable, since it is difficult to predict exactly how many people will turn out to caucus. This year, that may be even more true than usual, since Dean is working hard to attract many first-time caucusgoers.
The caucuses are also harder to forecast than straightforward balloting, since candidates have to receive more than 15 percent of the vote in any given precinct to be "viable." If they don't achieve viability, their supporters must either pick another candidate or declare themselves uncommitted. This means Iowans who currently back candidates such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich or the Rev. Al Sharpton - or, in certain areas, some of the top-tier candidates, if their support is not evenly distributed across the state - may wind up throwing their support behind someone else.
But there is a general consensus that the current movement in the polls reflects real shifts, which are being mirrored out on the campaign trail.
Kerry is drawing big crowds, and favorable reviews, with many voters commenting that he seems far more focused in these final days. Known for being a strong "closer" in campaigns, he's flying a helicopter around the state to hit as many locations as possible - a tactic he employed successfully in his first Senate race.
Edwards, too, seems to be attracting new attention - buoyed in particular by his positioning himself as a positive campaigner, refraining from leveling attacks on his rivals.
Gephardt's level of support has remained the most constant, barely budging up or down in the polls for months. As the best-known candidate in the race, some rivals say he's the least likely to attract undecided voters, since most Iowans likely made up their minds about him years ago. But his turnout operation could prove the most formidable, fueled by experienced and dedicated union members.
Still, Dean has other strengths that could ultimately give him an edge here, including an army of eager volunteers, and more money than any of his rivals - some of which is being spent in the current round of television ads.
And Dean's advisers argue that he has always faced a tough battle in Iowa, given Gephardt's history with the state (he won in 1988), and his strong union backing. Dean's received more prominent endorsements than any other candidate, including that of Ms. Moseley Braun, Mr. Gore, and Senator Harkin, who is barnstorming the state with Dean. "It's going to be close," says one Dean aide. "But however it shakes out, we're ready to deal with it."