It all starts with the Iowa trudge
COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa - Among Republicans, we have the showman, the ideologue and the next-generation man. Among Democrats: the avowed socialist who wants a democratic "revolution" and the avowed progressive/realist who says she wants to make actual "progress."
These five, and many more in the mix, submit themselves to Monday to the judgment of voters in Iowa, the farm state that gets everything trudging in the grinding process to pick the next president.
Iowa's magnetic hold on the 2016 hopefuls is in its final moments as more candidates prepare to flee for next-up New Hampshire, another small state with an outsized influence in shaping who's best positioned for the delegate-rich primaries to come.
Donald Trump is hanging out in Iowa for now, possibly for a Monday night party if he wins. Then it's off to New Hampshire to press what the polls say is his advantage in that state. Ohio Gov. John Kasich bailed from Iowa earlier, long seeing more promise for his longshot campaign back East.
According to late polls, the Republicans to watch most in the Iowa caucuses are the flamboyant Trump, the hard-driving conservative Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, 2016's youngest candidate at age 44 (though only five months younger than Cruz). Cruz, a Texas senator, has carefully cultivated his get-out-the-vote effort; Trump's is a question mark.
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton appear to be close in Iowa and facing a different calculus in New Hampshire, where the democratic socialist senator from bordering Vermont has an edge over the former secretary of state in a campaign that still has time to change.
A look at what to watch for and late developments in the Iowa campaign as halls and homes all over the state prepare to open their doors for the evening caucuses:
The Republican field includes two previous Iowa winners who had little apparent success in this Iowa campaign - Mike Huckabee (2008) and Rick Santorum (2012) - and soon may be facing the end of the road.
Two of their partners in the undercard debates, Chris Christie and Rand Paul, clawed their way back to the main debate stage to make their pitch to Iowans and the nation in prime time. Jeb Bush and Ben Carson, both trying to revive what once looked like promising campaigns, are also in contention, as is Carly Fiorina, who briefly attracted interest early on. On the other side, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is the most endangered Democrat.
A few departures may happen after Iowa but New Hampshire on Feb. 9 may be more of a winnowing event, because that's where more of the hopefuls are pinning hopes.
"What frustrates me about him is that he says you're only a purist if you're Ted Cruz." - An observation about Cruz from Benjamin Danielson, 31, a hospital chaplain from Cedar Rapids and a Rubio supporter.
"Too rehearsed." - An observation about Rubio from Dubuque resident Jo Lynn Bentz, who is waffling between the Florida senator and Cruz.
"Either Rubio or Christie, but I'm leaning toward Christie. But I better decide soon." - Lowell Knauss, at a Council Bluffs Rubio event.
"I am walking in the door uncommitted. I may walk out the door in somebody's camp. I'm walking in the door with an open mind," - Wayne Pedersen, a retired academic librarian from Ames said following a Sanders event.
The final major poll of the Iowa campaign, by The Des Moines Register and Bloomberg, found Trump to be leading the Republican race, but there's a hitch. A lot of Republicans don't like him. Other top candidates have less support - but they are also less unpopular. Meaning, Trump is the most polarizing contender.
Several findings point to this conclusion. First, just nearly half of likely Republican caucus-goers have a favorable opinion of Trump, while 70 percent like Rubio and 65 percent like Cruz (it being possible to like more than one candidate). Trump's unfavorable rating (47 percent) is surpassed only by that for Bush (53 percent).
Also, more would be enthusiastic about Rubio winning the nomination (58 percent,) or Cruz (56 percent), than Trump (44 percent).
Still, a vote can only go to one candidate and Trump is the top choice overall, if the poll is right. It finds 28 percent for Trump, 23 percent for Cruz, 15 percent for Rubio and the others trailing. Clinton and Sanders are separated by only 3 percentage points, within the margin of error, on the Democratic side.
A LAST GASP
Our Principles, a super political action committee recently formed to take down Trump, paid for full-page newspaper ads in Iowa featuring distortions about Trump's positions. The ad says Trump in "just the last few months" called for "government-run health insurance forced upon Iowans" a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally, and more.
In fact, Trump told "60 Minutes" in September that he sees a system in which most people stay in private health plans, with greater competition offering more choices in the market. For those who can't afford insurance, he said "the government's gonna pay for it" - a plan lacking details, but resembling how health care has been working through employment-based insurance, Medicaid, Medicare and now "Obamacare." He did not propose forcing government health care on the nation, or Iowa.
The ad quotes Trump as saying in June that people illegally in the U.S. must be given "'a path' to citizenship," but citizenship is the word choice of the super PAC, not Trump. Another immigration path is one leading to legal status short of citizenship. And Trump's unique and hardline path is to send all such people out of the U.S., then let the "good ones" back in.
The super PAC is led by former Mitt Romney aide Katie Packer.
Enthusiasm for debates waxes and wanes according to who's up and who's down. Who's down wants to debate and debate, as a way of climbing up. Who's up might find it safer to take a pass.
Republicans have been throwing that caution to the wind and going for it - in prime time, no less. Though Donald Trump, who is up, skipped the last one. And when Ted Cruz tried to goad him into a one on one debate, he brushed that off like lint.
The Democratic National Committee, in contrast, has been playing it safe. The party organized a skimpy debate schedule and favored off-hours for TV viewers, by all appearances a move to shelter Clinton.
Now a convoluted negotiation is underway between the Clinton and Sanders campaigns for more matchups. Clinton wants a debate before New Hampshire, where the polls have her down. Sanders says, fine, but only on condition that they have three more debates in the spring. He's down nationally in the polls and eager for more debates - except, perhaps, in New Hampshire, where's he's up. Clinton balked at his conditions. A solution is expected.
A DROP IN DELEGATE BUCKET
At stake Monday: 44 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, out of 2,382 to win the party's nomination; 30 delegates to the Republican convention, out of 1,237 needed for the GOP nomination.
Democrats will meet at about 1,100 spots and Republicans will gather at nearly 900.
Democrats break into groups that declare their support for a candidate. If the number of people in any group is less than 15 percent of the total, they can either choose not to participate or join another candidate group. That leads to some intense wooing.
The GOP process is simpler: Supporters of each candidate get a chance to give a brief speech, then people privately mark ballots.