With two days before Iowans go to the polls, significant support for Sen. Barack Obama from political independents has put rival Democratic campaigns on edge, challenging the traditional model of the state's caucuses as a low-turnout exercise dominated by partisan insiders.
The senator from Illinois received a jolt of momentum late New Year's Eve, when the Des Moines Register's final Iowa poll showed him leading Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) by 32 percent to 25 percent, with former senator John Edwards (N.C.) at 24 percent. But just as striking were two findings that suggest Obama may be succeeding at one of the riskiest gambits of his Iowa campaign, an aggressive push to persuade non-Democrats to participate.
The survey found that more newcomers than regular participants could turn out on Thursday: Overall, 40 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers identified themselves as independents, the poll said, double the percentage from 2004, and 60 percent said they would be attending a caucus for the first time. Both groups preferred Obama.
As rival campaigns immediately challenged the makeup of the Register sample and a poll for CNN-Opinion Research came out showing the race a virtual tie between Clinton and Obama, the candidates spent the first day of the election year courting the shrinking number of uncommitted voters.
Chief Clinton strategist Mark Penn disputed the poll, calling the Register's turnout model "unprecedented" and "out of sync with other polling done in the race," including several recent surveys that showed a statistical dead heat. Edwards spokesman Eric Schultz called the Register model "at odds with history."
Even Obama's campaign was surprised by the large sample of independents, and aides cautioned that it could be overblown. "We're not modeling it that high," senior Obama strategist Steve Hildebrand said of the independent pool. "We love the numbers in the Register poll, but we know this is going to be very tight."
Only a small portion of Iowa's approximately 600,000 registered Democrats have historically shown up on caucus night. Four years ago, about 125,000 voters participated in Iowa's Democratic caucuses; 19 percent called themselves independents. But from the outset of this campaign, Obama's campaign has targeted independents as intensively as it has registered Democrats, bombarding them with phone calls, direct-mail pieces and personal visits.
Obama courts independents as well as Republicans in his stump speech, casting his appeal across party lines as a key to his electability in November. "We've got to reach out to them and invite them into the process of creating change," he said at a rally Tuesday in Des Moines.
All three Democratic front-runners are spending millions of dollars to increase the universe of caucusgoers. According to the Register poll all three are succeeding, with Obama, Clinton and Edwards drawing most of their support from first-timers. But if Obama can produce the large independent turnout that the poll anticipates, he will have transformed at least these Iowa caucuses from a conclave for party regulars to something much more like a typical primary, similar to the first-in-the-nation contest in New Hampshire on Jan. 8.
"The hurdle that we have is getting them to show up and re-register as Democrats, and we know that's not an easy thing for lots of people to do," Hildebrand said. "But people are pretty motivated." The big benefit of the Register poll, he added, is the message it sends to this group. "It shows that they're not alone," he said. "It shows that this is doable."
"It just might work," an energized Obama told a roaring crowd of around 1,000 here Tuesday morning. But he cautioned, "The polls look good, but understand this: The polls are not enough."
Geoff Barrick, who works for an auto parts factory in Marengo and described himself as the "guy everybody wants," offered evidence that there is something to the Obama boom. He voted for Democrat John F. Kerry in 2004, Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and independent Ross Perot in 1992. This year, he is leaning to Obama.
"This is an earnest young man," said Barrick, gesturing to Obama as he shook hands with voters after a recent event in Williamsburg. "I think he's very electable."
At their first campaign events of 2008, Clinton and Edwards gave a nod toward independent voters. Edwards was more explicit, saying that his focus on "corporate greed and corporate power and their iron-fisted grip on our democracy" is roiling not only Democrats but also people across the political spectrum.
"It's doing it to independents. It's doing it to Republicans," Edwards told an overflowing auditorium at Iowa State University. In a none-too-subtle dig at Obama, Edwards said his arguments come from the heart, rather than the head. "Every one of you can tell the difference between somebody giving an academic speech and somebody who's coming from right here," he said, gesturing toward his chest.
David Bonior, the national campaign manager for Edwards, estimated that the overall turnout on caucus night will be 150,000 -- fewer than the 200,000 or so that the Register poll was predicated on. Edwards's advisers have long believed that lower turnout would favor their candidate, making small crowds and even inclement weather a plus, because it would put a cap on the number of new voters who could show up to support Clinton or Obama.
Clinton has built her campaign on a newer model that relies on first-time caucus attendees. "I hope that as the next 48 hours unfolds, those of you who are still deciding, those of you who have never caucused before, decide you have got to be part of taking our country back," she told a large crowd in Ames on Tuesday morning.
In a brief question-and-answer session after her speech, Clinton fielded questions about immigration and then rural farming, both subjects with broad appeal around the state that are as inclined to appeal to independents and Republicans as Democrats.
For the final stretch, Clinton brought her daughter, Chelsea, and her mother, Dorothy Rodham, out onto the campaign trail. She spoke in a low voice, just a notch above a whisper, part of a muted speaking style she has adopted in recent weeks.
Edwards was joined by his wife, Elizabeth, and their children for a 36-hour bus tour across the state that is scheduled to include overnight stops. The candidates converge in Des Moines on Thursday for caucus rallies before flying to New Hampshire.
Among the hard-core Democrats who make up the caucus's traditional attendance, Obama also received a modest boost Tuesday when Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) told his small but loyal following of Iraq war opponents to pick Obama as their second choice. Kucinich, who is drawing about 1 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers, according to this week's Register poll, said if he does not clear the 15 percent threshold for viability in individual precincts on Thursday, he will "strongly encourage" his supporters to opt next for Obama, which they may do under the arcane rules governing the caucuses.
In 2004, Kucinich agreed to share support with Edwards, an arrangement that political observers believe may have contributed to the latter's strong second-place finish. This year, his natural ally is Obama, the only other Democrat in the race who opposed the Iraq war before it started.