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Iowa caucuses get more attention than ever

  • Story Highlights
  • Iowa caucuses are January 3, the earliest ever and 16 days earlier than 2004
  • New Hampshire primary is just five days later
  • The races in both parties are up for grabs in Iowa
  • War, immigration, health care big issues in Iowa
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By Paul Steinhauser
CNN Washington Bureau
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(CNN) -- With states moving their caucuses and primaries earlier, what does that mean for Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus?

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is the GOP front-runner in most national polls, but not in Iowa.

"Nothing," says CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider. "Iowa is still first, and its caucuses are getting more attention than ever.

"That's partly because of the uncertain nature of the outcome in Iowa. Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney have solid leads in New Hampshire. Not in Iowa," Schneider added.

Iowa's caucuses are a month from today -- January 3, the earliest caucus ever and 16 days earlier than in 2004.

Iowa and the other traditional early voting states, like New Hampshire, which holds the first primary, and South Carolina, which holds the first southern primary, all moved up their schedules. They did so after larger states, like California, New York and Illinois moved their contests to February 5 and Florida jumped ahead to January 29 to try to gain more influence in the nominating process.

So just three days into the new year, the voting begins.

"The caucus in Iowa is as early as we've ever seen it. And given the upcoming holidays, when voters might tune out politics, the candidates are competing as if caucus day is tomorrow," says CNN Senior Political Analyst Gloria Borger.

"They know full well that the importance of Iowa has been enhanced this time because the New Hampshire primary is just five days later. So the winner in Iowa can use that momentum to build up votes in the New Hampshire. And, conversely, if a campaign does not do well in Iowa, there's much less time to recoup," Borger added.

From now until January 3, most of the candidates will be spending most of their time in the Hawkeye State. And it's not just because of the calendar. The races in both parties are up for grabs in Iowa.

While Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York is the overwhelming front-runner in national polls, she has been in a three-way tossup with Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina in Iowa polls for quite some time.

In the most recent survey, a Des Moines Register poll out Sunday, Obama had the support of 28 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers, Clinton had 25 percent and Edwards 23 percent, all of which is within the survey's sampling error.

An American Research Group poll out a few days earlier also put Obama on top with support of 27 percent of those questioned, followed by Clinton's 25 percent and Edwards two points behind Clinton.

Basically, it's a dead heat at the top.

Likewise, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is the Republican front-runner in most national polls. But in Iowa it's a different story.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leads most surveys of likely GOP caucus-goers, but former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is now on top in that same Des Moines Register poll.

Huckabee's support of 29 percent is 5 points ahead of Romney and Giuliani is third with 13 percent. The American Research Group poll had Romney at 28 percent, 1 point ahead of Huckabee.

With the clock ticking and the polls tied at the top, the pressure is on. Expect to see the tough talk and bad blood between the campaigns continue, because it's a safe bet that some of the candidates will drop out of the race after Iowa.

So what's on the minds of Iowa voters? It's true that ethanol and farm subsidies are important to voters there, but overall, the big issues in Iowa are also the big issues across the country.

"Historically Iowa has always had a sizable peace movement, so it was inevitable that the war in Iraq would have resonance there. Town hall meetings, the VFW and union halls, are filled with questions about Iraq," CNN senior political correspondent Candy Crowley said.

"Still, over the past several months other topics have become more prominent. Stories and questions about uninsured and underinsured sick people and seniors who cannot afford prescription drugs come up now more often than the war, as do fears about illegal immigration," adds Crowley.

If that last issue seems a bit odd with Iowa being nowhere near the Mexican or Canadian borders, the immigrant population has skyrocketed recently.

"The first time I ever heard the question 'does the U.S. government have plans to build a highway from Mexico to Canada?' I was baffled," Crowley said.

"The answer, according to Democratic and Republican candidates who are asked about it fairly frequently, is no. Usually the candidates begin by saying 'I don't even know how this idea got started.' It got started inside a deep well of concern about illegal immigration in Iowa," Crowley added.

"The Hispanic population in the Hawkeye State, both documented and undocumented, has grown exponentially, with workers lured by jobs in Iowa's pork processing plants and other agricultural businesses. The fear of overcrowded classrooms, overwhelmed emergency rooms, and increased crime have become standard fare on radio talk shows and a driving force in the politics of this first-in-the-nation caucus," Crowley said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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