Democratic and Republican presidential candidates across Iowa are scrambling for the first votes in the 2016 race for the White House, urging their supporters to take part in today’s caucuses in which outsiders Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are pinning their hopes on a large turnout.
The caucuses will provide a big test of whether the large enthusiastic crowds attending rallies for Mr Trump and Mr Sanders will turn into actual votes when Iowans gather on a wintry night for meetings at schools, libraries and even private homes in the first in a series of state-by-state nominating contests.
Iowa offers only a small contingent of the delegates who will determine the nominees at each party’s national nominating convention in July.
But those candidates exceeding expectations will gain a burst of momentum heading into New Hampshire with its February 9 primary and other early voting states.
The caucus results should also help cut down the crowded Republican field of nearly a dozen candidates.
Snow forecast for Monday night appeared more likely to hinder the presidential contenders in their rush out of Iowa – and on to New Hampshire – than the voters.
In the last major preference poll before the caucuses, Mr Trump, the billionaire real estate mogul, had the support of 28% of likely caucus-goers, with Texas Senator Ted Cruz on 23% and Florida Senator Marco Rubio on 15%.
The Iowa Poll, published by The Des Moines Register and Bloomberg, also found Hillary Clinton with 45% support to Mr Sanders’ 42%.
The poll of 602 likely Republican caucus-goers and 602 likely Democratic caucus-goers was taken from Tuesday to Friday and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Mr Cruz, who describes himself as a “consistent conservative”, is relying on a strong get-out-the-vote operation to overtake Mr Trump, who is hoping his star power will boost turnout among non-traditional caucus participants.
“I don’t have to win” in Iowa, Mr Trump said, before adding that he believes he has “a good chance” of victory.
Mr Rubio pitched himself as the pragmatic choice for Republicans who want to win the November election.
On the Democratic side, Mr Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats, is depending on enthusiastic young voters to turn up in greater numbers at the caucuses. Mrs Clinton has more support among older voters who regularly turn up for the caucuses.
“People are really enthusiastic, and if people come out to vote, I think you’re going to look at one of the biggest political upsets in the modern history of our country,” Mr Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, told CNN’s State Of The Union.
Mr Sanders’ campaign sought to claim financial momentum, saying it raised 20 million US dollars in January, largely from small donors, suggesting he will continue to match front-runner Mrs Clinton’s vast resources.
Mrs Clinton, the former Secretary of State, said she had been subjected to “years of scrutiny, and I’m still standing”.
On ABC’s This Week, she said: “I feel vetted. I feel ready. I feel strong, and I think I’m the best person to be the nominee and to defeat whoever they nominate in November.”
Several Republican candidates attended church services on Sunday – in part, a testament to the influence that evangelical Christians wield in the Republican contest.
Mr Trump attended services in the non-denominational First Christian Orchard Campus in Council Bluffs with his wife, Melania, and two staffers. The billionaire took communion when it was passed, but initially he mistook the silver plates being circulated around the auditorium, and dug several banknotes out of his pocket.
“I thought it was for offering,” he said with a laugh to his staff.
Mr Cruz said on Fox News Sunday hat he is attracting “the old Reagan coalition” ranging from anti-establishment conservatives to working-class Democrats.
The Texas senator directed most of his final advertising against Mr Rubio as the senators’ feud intensified at the Iowa finish line.
Mr Cruz took to the airwaves to challenge the conservative credentials of Mr Rubio. One ad said of Mr Rubio: “Tax hikes. Amnesty. The Republican Obama.”
Mr Rubio countered on CNN that Mr Cruz is “always looking to take whatever position it takes to win votes or raise money”.
Later, campaigning in Cedar Falls, Mr Rubio played down differences among the Republican hopefuls, casting himself as the party’s best hope against the Democrats.
“It’s not just about who you like the most. It’s about who gives us the best chance of winning. That matters,” Mr Rubio said at the University of Northern Iowa.
He is hoping to finish at least a strong third in Iowa, giving him an edge in the battle to emerge as the favourite of the party establishment heading into New Hampshire, where he will face competition from former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Ohio Governor John Kasich.