(CBS/AP) Democrats Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards fought for first Thursday in Iowa's presidential caucuses, a multimillion-dollar exercise in grass-roots democracy and the initial, critical test in the campaign for the party's 2008 nomination. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee vied for the Republican victory.
Iowans were summoned to the evening caucuses in biting cold but generally clear skies. It was for them to untangle a knotted race too close to call on either side, with three Democrats and two Republicans seemingly in contention for victory and a larger field hoping for bragging rights - or survival.
The candidates' challenge in the opening contest of the 2008 election was twofold: to get supporters out to the meetings and to win over the large numbers of voters who were stubbornly refusing to make up their minds until the very end, a quarter of caucus-goers by one recent estimate.
"No one can say with any amount of certainty just who is going to come out of tonight's caucuses as winners and losers," writes CBSNews.com senior political editor Vaughn Ververs.
Iowans render their judgments in meetings at 1,781 precincts from Adel to Zingle, in schools, firehouses and community centers where the candidates themselves could not follow. Caucuses begin at 7 p.m. local time (8 p.m. EST).
In the hours before decision time, most candidates filled their Thursday calendar with still more speeches and events to give their final say.
Huckabee took his case to a crowd of about 175 at a Burlington, Iowa, casino - only about half of whom were committed to him, judging by a show of hands.
Reprising his theme as a common man in a field of elites, he told the crowd he reminds people of the guy they work with, not the guy who laid them off. He dismissed the idea it takes millions of dollars to win, drawing an unspoken but unmistakable contrast with the wealthy Romney as well as other big spenders.
"It's about believing in a cause," the former Arkansas governor said. "It's about believing in some core values, some convictions about what makes this country strong, and what can keep it strong and make it even stronger."
On the Democratic side, Edwards switched from his familiar jeans and blazer to a dark suit and blue tie as he made his last pitch to middle-class Iowans worried about health insurance, drug costs and other pocketbook issues. Rallies in Des Moines, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids on Thursday were capping his push in a state he has repeatedly visited for the past four years.
"Our campaign to stand up for the middle class and stop corporate greed is unstoppable," the Democrat told about 200 cheering steelworkers in a brief morning stop in Des Moines. Polls suggested he was in an improbably tight race with Clinton and Obama.
"We need you to make calls, talk to your friends," Edwards told 100 people in Iowa City, jettisoning his anti-corporate stump speech in favor of an appeal to spur turnout. And above all, he said, "Don't be late."
Candidates hedged their Iowa bets, declaring "anything is possible," "it's too close to call" and all now depended on getting the people who've been cheering their words to come out to vote and arm-twist neighbors to do the same.
Romney most explicitly ramped back expectations, at least for public consumption, saying he'd settle for second in the opening contest of the 2008 election season as well as in the New Hampshire primary only five days after Iowa.
Clinton, in a historic effort to become the first female president, said: "I feel good, but it depends on who comes out, who decides to actually put on their coats, warm up their cars and go to the caucuses."
Obama echoed the sentiment. "Anything is possible at this point," he said. "We've put a lot into Iowa and our efforts here. We feel good about what we've done, but this is the beginning and not the end." Candidates spoke on the morning talk shows.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Joe Biden of Delaware and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio also contested the state for the Democrats.
For Republicans, Arizona Sen. John McCain, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson were also on the ballot, although their aides made no claim they were in the running for a first-place finish. So, too, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who largely abandoned the state in the campaign's final days.
Win or lose, there was little time for rest. New Hampshire's first-in-the nation primary is set for next Tuesday, and the campaign quickly accelerates into a rush of contests culminating in more than two dozen on Feb. 5.
With President Bush constitutionally barred from seeking re-election, both parties had wide-open, costly campaigns.
Iowa sends 45 delegates to the Democratic National Convention next summer in Denver and 37 to the GOP gathering in St. Paul, Minn. But that was hardly the reason the crowded field of presidential hopefuls devoted weeks of campaigning, built muscular campaign organizations and spent millions of dollars on television advertising in the state.