DES MOINES, Iowa - Presidential hopefuls hedged their bets heading into the Iowa caucuses, declaring Thursday that "anything is possible," "it's too close to call" and all now depends on getting the people who've been cheering their words to come out to vote and arm-twist neighbors to do the same.
Republican Mitt Romney 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. The one-time leader in Iowa polls was fighting Mike Huckabee for a win in Iowa on Thursday night.
Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in an equally unpredictable three-way race, 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."
Her rival, Sen. Barack 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 before a final round of campaigning as Iowans prepared to put their stamp on the wide-open presidential race. The night forecast called for cold, clear weather, in the teens to low 20s.
Caucuses begin at 7 p.m. — 8 p.m. EST — and with that evening curtain-raiser, most candidates filled their Thursday calendar with still more speeches and events.
But while the talk was going on past one more sundown, the time for listening was fast drawing to a close. The persuasive power of rhetoric was suddenly yielding in importance to the availability of baby sitters to help people get to the caucuses.
Campaigns were ready with snow shovels if needed, and used the phone and Facebook online to encourage voters. Romney said his campaign made 12,000 calls on Sunday alone.
Obama, from Illinois, recommended longjohns as he sent people door to door. Clinton, in her historic run to become the first female president, served bagels, fruit and coffee to Des Moines volunteers Wednesday. The New York senator said of the biting cold, "I know if you're here from Iowa to help me, this is like, nothing."
Surveys suggested a quarter of likely caucus-goers were still undecided in the final days.
Romney vastly outspent his rivals in Iowa and established a strong presence in the state since he stepped down as Massachusetts governor a year ago Thursday. Huckabee's upstart challenge wore away his edge in the state, but Romney dismissed the notion on the talk shows that anything had gone wrong in his campaign.
"Wrong? Hey, it couldn't be better," he said. "Are you kidding me? I started off as an unknown."
He noted he was the Republican candidate in the strongest contention in Iowa and New Hampshire both and insisted he did not have to win them to move strongly forward. "I'd like to win them but if I don't win, coming in second in these states is a strong statement." He said of Iowa: "I think at this stage it's too close to call."
Polls indicate an improbably tight three-way race for the Democrats, Clinton, Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards all knotted together — a crowd-pleasing nail-biter reflected in swollen crowds at Democratic venues and expectations of a hectic caucus night.
Clinton, Obama, Romney and Edwards were interviewed on morning TV programs — CBS' "The Early Show," NBC's "Today" show and ABC's "Good Morning America."
Clinton and Huckabee also appeared on late night talk shows Wednesday, a chance to start looking beyond Iowa and endear themselves with a national audience just as the campaign starts to move across the country.
But their different responses to the siren call of Hollywood illustrated the polish of the Democrat's campaign and the occasional muddle of Huckabee's, recurring more often in recent weeks.
Clinton, feet firmly planted in Iowa, spoke by tape with David Letterman, whose New York-based show settled with striking writers. Huckabee flew to Burbank, Calif., to sit with Jay Leno in the final crucial hours of the Iowa campaign and was unaware when he made the commitment that he'd have to cross a picket line. The former Arkansas governor said he supported the strikers; they called him a scab.
Obama, an at-times stirring orator and the most viable black presidential candidate in history, drew large crowds, yet acknowledged that won't put him over the top unless he can motivate his supporters to come to the caucus meetings.
He's proven especially popular among young people, who are notably less apt to vote.
Altogether, 120,000 to 150,000 people were expected to come to the Democratic caucuses and 80,000 to 90,000 to the GOP meetings. Caucuses are held in each of the state's nearly 1,800 precincts and draw anywhere from a few people each in rural areas to hundreds in suburbia.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee hoped to rescue his faltering candidacy with a third place finish against an ascendant Sen. John McCain of Arizona, with long shot Rep. Ron Paul and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani also in the mix. McCain made a quick return to Iowa on Wednesday after largely bypassing the caucuses to make his stand in New Hampshire.
Giuliani, who has seen his national lead in polls wither, is pinning his hopes on the flood of contests after New Hampshire if he can't get traction in the Granite State, where Romney and McCain are going to head to head.
Edwards, who finished second in Iowa in 2004 on his way to a spot on the national Democratic ticket, mounted a 36-hour marathon capped Wednesday night at a rally with rocker John Mellencamp. The grueling schedule turned Edwards' voice hoarse.
At every stop, the former North Carolina senator tried to turn what some Americans see as a drawback — his lucrative career as a trial lawyer — into an asset.
"I spent 20 years in courtrooms" fighting big companies, he told an Iowa City crowd. "You cannot 'nice' these people to death," Edwards said, obviously jabbing at Clinton and Obama's greater willingness to negotiate for change. "They will stomp all over you."