DES MOINES - Tomorrow night Iowa Democrats will head out to nearly 2,000 fire halls, school basements, and private homes to sound a note of clarity in the so-far cacophonous argument over the Democratic presidential nomination.
The next evening, President Bush will go to the House in Washington to deliver the State of the Union message and an implicit argument for a second term.
The back-to-back events mark the symbolic start of a presidential election that will determine who gives that speech next January and steers the course of the nation for the next four years.
The voting here in Iowa tomorrow is the starting block for an intense opening sprint in the Democratic race. Eight contests will be held for delegates within the next 15 days. By all indications, four candidates are within striking distance of the lead.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard B. Dean, Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri have been bunched in recent tracking polls.
Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who is neutral in the race, said last week that his sense of the contest matches the trend of the published polls.
“I get information anecdotally from various camps, and it s consistent: This is a very tight race between four candidates,” he said.
Offering a snapshot of the race, he added, “Gephardt has a great organization. Dean, if there is a lead, has it. Kerry and Edwards have the momentum.”
Mr. Dean has built his appeal on his early opposition to the war in Iraq and on an Internet outreach to new voters and those estranged from the traditional political establishments.
Mr. Edwards, a first-term senator, has portrayed himself as a populist, arguing that he has stood up against corporations and entrenched interests in his successful career as a trial lawyer.
The telegenic senator has floated largely above the recently acrimonious tone of the precaucus campaigning, a fact often cited to explain his uptick in support. He contends that he is uniquely qualified to challenge Mr. Bush for electoral votes in the South.
While embracing a traditional Democratic agenda, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Gephardt are marketing different shades of experience.
Mr. Gephardt has sought to distinguish himself from the other leaders by trumpeting his consistent skepticism over unfettered free trade agreements. In the face of Mr. Dean s jibes about Washington insiders, he paints his long career in Congress as a strength, promising that he has the political savvy to enact his health care proposal, perhaps the most ambitious of those offered by the Democrats.
Mr. Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, argues that in the post-9/11 world, he has the military and congressional credentials to stand up to Mr. Bush on national security and foreign policy issues.
Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who has chosen to sit out the caucus competition to focus on New Hampshire and other states, makes a similar case based on his military and diplomatic experience. The former NATO commander has been scathing in charging that Mr. Bush misled the public about the reasons for going to war in Iraq.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D., Conn.), who also made the tactical decision to skip Iowa, has taken some of the more centrist positions in the Democratic field. He is the most unambiguous supporter of the Iraq war and he has remained wedded to the free-trade posture that characterized the Clinton administration.
The Rev. Al Sharpton has offered an articulate wit and a voice for his African-American constituency in the Democrats series of debates. But he is seen a having no organization and little support in Iowa.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Ohio), a liberal stalwart on the war, health care, and other issues, is seen as having pockets of support in Iowa but no serious chance to contend for the nomination.
The insurgent Mr. Dean, who until recent days appeared to be the clear front-runner in Iowa and even more so in New Hampshire, has been the target of most of the other contenders. They contend his sharp anti-Bush tone may appeal to many committed Democrats but will drive away swing voters in the general election.
For various reasons, the other leading Democrats insist they would best make the party s case to moderate voters in swing states where electoral votes are up for grabs between the two parties.
An election involving an incumbent, however, is almost always a referendum on the incumbent s record rather than a blank-slate comparison between two candidates. In contrast to the swing-voter argument, Dean partisans say the most effective nominee would be the candidate who makes the most aggressive case against Mr. Bush.
In deference to the tradition-steeped occasion of a State of the Union address Tuesday night, Mr. Bush may mute partisan rhetoric, but he will be making an unmistakable case for his re-election.
He will portray himself a resolute commander in the war against terror, and is expected to tout a recovering economy. But economic statistics provide debating points for both parties.
The relatively brief recession that accompanied the dot-com bust began just after Mr. Bush took office and officially ended in November, 2001, three years before this year s election. An initially slow recovery has accelerated in the past year with stock market gains, increases in productivity and the gross domestic product, and low inflation - all plausible bragging points for the administration.
But job creation has lagged.
U.S. firms employ 2.3 million fewer workers today than they did when President Clinton left office. Democratic candidates blister Mr. Bush with the characterization that he has presided over the worst net job losses of any president since Herbert Hoover.
Mr. Bush will ask for a second term from a public with rising anxiety over the cost of health care, a fact reflected in polls and the platforms of all of the Democratic candidates. Mr. Bush, however, can point to the Medicare drug bill that passed Congress late last year.
Democrats have criticized the measure as ineffective and riddled with giveaways to drug companies and other special interests. Mr. Bush and the Republicans claim that the bill, even if not perfect, represents the first progress on an issue that had been stalled in Washington for decades.
That debate will continue. But its most important implication for presidential politics may be that there is a debate at all. Medicare traditionally has been an issue owned by the Democrats. This year Mr. Bush can contend on that ground.
The Bush campaign also enters the election year with enormous logistical advantages. In addition to the ability to dominate the news enjoyed by an incumbent, Mr. Bush has a campaign war chest that dwarfs any of the Democrats, including Mr. Dean, who has attracted so much attention with his financial mining of the Internet.
But outside events, more than money or tactics or rhetoric, are likely to be the strongest determinants of this race. If, as Treasury Secretary John Snow and other Republicans predict, jobs start to catch up with the nation s productivity gains, it will take the sting out of the Democrat s economic rhetoric. If, however, employment continues to lag, Mr. Bush will be vulnerable.
A major terrorist attack also could alter the election calculus - either provoking a loss of confidence in the administration or bolstering it with the same rally-round-the-flag dynamic that followed Sept. 11, 2001.
Which of the Democrats will get the chance to carry the standard against Mr. Bush? The tangible inklings of an answer to that question are just hours away.
Tracking polls have shown a clear move up for the two senators competing in Iowa, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards, over the past week. According to the Zogby poll, Mr. Edwards was at 12 percent six days ago; on Friday, he stood at 17. Mr. Kerry, once all but written off here, had moved into first place with 24 percent, compared to 16 percent last week.
Mr. Gephardt slipped from 23 percent to 19 percent; and Mr. Dean, whose front-runner status had made him the common target of his rivals in recent months, dropped from 26 percent to 21 percent. Mr. Dean, once the presumptive favorite in New Hampshire, has also slipped in polling there, to the delight of his competitors.
“The same precipitous drop you see in Iowa, you see in New Hampshire,” crowed Bill Carrick, national media adviser for the Gephardt campaign. “It s coming to a town near you soon.”
Pollsters and analysts emphasize, however, that pre-caucus polling is a treacherous enterprise. Any political poll faces the challenge of identifying those most likely to vote. That is particularly true for a process where the participation levels are low but volatile. Only 10 percent of registered Democrats, 61,000, showed up at the 2000 caucuses.
Chet Culver, Iowa s secretary of state, predicted that tomorrow s turnout could be twice that, surpassing the record of 125,000 set in 1988, the last year that the Democratic field was large and competitive.
Joe Trippi, Mr. Dean s campaign manager, does not dispute the poll numbers that show a tightening race. He contends, however, that the governor s campaign has generated support that may elude traditional polling.
A strong showing by Mr. Edwards would lend his campaign the credibility needed to carry him beyond New Hampshire and on to what he hopes will be the more welcoming ground of his neighboring state of South Carolina, the most closely watched of the Feb. 3 Democratic contests.
Like Mr. Gephardt, Mr. Kerry s campaign is seen as the beneficiary of experienced caucus quarterbacks, and he has benefited from an apparent surge in support.
“I ve always said there are three tickets out of Iowa, and I m looking for one of them,” Mr. Kerry said last week.
Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O Toole is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.