Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses have long marked the beginning of the end of the nominating process - a concrete test of message and momentum that propels some candidates forward, while forcing others to reassess their bids.
But now, as Iowans prepare to register their choice for the Democratic nominee, it seems increasingly likely that this year's caucuses may not have the traditional winnowing effect at all. With polls showing a statistical tie between the top four candidates - pitting late surges in momentum for John Kerry and John Edwards against the superior organizations of Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt, the 2004 caucuses may not shape the race so much as further scramble it.
Indeed, some strategists now say Iowa could wind up setting off an unusually competitive - and long - primary battle that reaches far beyond New Hampshire.
It's possible "you're not going to have an immediate winnowing of the field," said Steve Murphy, Gephardt's campaign manager, in a recent conference call with reporters. "You might have a fairly lengthy process into March."
Already, the tightening of the race has energized the candidacies of both Senator Kerry of Massachusetts and Senator Edwards of North Carolina, to the point where even if they wind up finishing third and fourth they may be able to carry some momentum forward, at least into New Hampshire and the Feb. 3 states. Mr. Kerry's poll numbers in New Hampshire, where he had fallen into third place behind Mr. Dean and Gen. Wesley Clark, are beginning to rise, and he recently received the endorsements of two prominent newspapers in the state. Mr. Edwards's numbers are creeping up in New Hampshire as well - although he's looking more to South Carolina, where he could be a strong contender to win.
Of course, Dean and Mr. Gephardt could be damaged if they fail to finish in the top two - Dean because he has for months been the presumed frontrunner, and Gephardt because he's staked his candidacy on winning Iowa. Yet Dean has the resources - both in terms of money and core supporters - to compete well beyond Iowa, regardless of what happens here. And for both men, the order of finish may not mean much if all four candidates wind up as closely bunched together as pre-caucus polls have placed them.
In many ways, the campaign seems to have reverted back to its original formlessness: After an interval of many months shaped by Dean's surge and the issue of Iraq war, the race now once again lacks a dominant issue or a dominant frontrunner. Certainly, the four-way fight has added a layer of complexity - and confusion - to the race, forcing campaigns to adjust their strategies, and their attacks, at the last minute. Kerry came under fire from Dean and Gephardt this week for past votes on agricultural issues, for example. And Kerry himself may have gotten some traction attacking Dean and Gephardt for wanting to raise taxes on the middle class.
But both Dean and Gephardt also pulled negative ads they'd been running last week, after Kerry and particularly Edwards, who have been stressing more "positive" themes, began to surge. Indeed, some strategists say the race is so fluid now that it's almost impossible to figure out which rival poses the biggest threat, anyway.
"Everybody's a problem for everybody," says one Democratic strategist.
The competitiveness of the race - and the unusually high stakes - were seen in the number of surrogates who poured into the state in the final days: Kerry campaigned with Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, and former presidential candidate Gary Hart, among others. Dean made his first-ever campaign appearance with his wife, Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean.
Not surprisingly, voters seem unusually conflicted. Many Iowans say they are having had a harder time making up their minds than ever before - and won't decide until they actually walk into the caucus rooms.
"I've never seen it with this degree of intensity and volatility," says Dave Nagle, a former congressman and Iowa Democratic Party chairman, who has endorsed Dean.
Mr. Nagle attributes the volatility to two factors: "the closeness of the race," with several well-qualified candidates offering Iowans strong choices, and the looming presence of George Bush. "There is a degree of animosity towards this president that I haven't seen since Richard Nixon," he says. "He is intensely disliked by Democrats."
Driven by a desire to get President Bush out of the White House, Democrats may be paying more attention than usual to a candidate's electability. In recent weeks that issue seems to have become more of a problem for Dean, fueled by relentless attacks from his rivals, as well as his own misstatements.
It may also help explain the shifts in momentum. At a Kerry rally in Des Moines, Lois Bullinga says that she began the year supporting Kerry - but then started looking at other candidates as the Massachusetts senator seemed to falter. But now that he's ahead in the polls, she's back with Kerry. "When he started coming on strong again, I got excited," she says. "We want to pick a winner."