"The polls look good, but understand this -- the polls are not enough. The only thing that counts is whether or not you show up to caucus," Democrat Barack Obama told a fired-up crowd of young and old packed into a high school gymnasium.
Amid murmurs of "Amen!" at a pizza parlor in Sergeant Bluff, Republican Mike Huckabee urged hundreds: "Don't go alone. Take people with you. Fill up your car. Rent a van. Hijack your church's bus, whatever you've got to do to get people to the caucus who are going to vote for me."
Candidates made the pitch repeatedly as they canvassed the state for Thursday's caucuses, the first votes of the presidential nominating process. At least 130,000 Democrats and 80,000 Republicans are expected to participate in 1,781 neighborhood meetings at schools, fire stations and community centers across Iowa on what is forecast to be a clear but cold night.
New polls show both races competitive, the outcomes extraordinarily unpredictable.
Among Democrats, Obama, an Illinois senator, is fighting with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York for the lead as former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina gives them strong chase. Two former governors, Huckabee of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, are vying for first on the Republican side.
Given the tightness, turning out voters will be critical.
Thus, hoards of volunteers made thousands of get-out-the-vote phone calls Tuesday, the campaigns rolled out uplifting television ads and the candidates made their pitches on the first day of 2008. The efforts were intended to maximize media exposure and voter outreach.
All but one candidate, Romney, shunned the negativity that spiked in recent weeks.
Obama, Clinton and Edwards played nice. Huckabee made good on a promise to clean up his act, the day after he held a news conference to say he wouldn't run a critical ad against Romney -- but then showed it to a room full of reporters and cameramen.
"It does remind you a bit of a person who stands up and says 'I'm not going to call my opponent any names, but here are the names I'd call him if I were going to call him names,"' Romney told reporters in Johnston.
With two days left in the campaign, Romney continued his ads against Huckabee. He also assailed Huckabee's defense of his own failure to read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran last month.
"President Bush didn't read it for four years; I don't know why I should read it in four hours," Huckabee said in an interview published Monday in the Mason City Globe Gazette.
Romney seized on the comment: "I'm not sure whether Governor Huckabee meant the attack as a joke, but this is not a time to be mocking our president, and it was I think in bad taste."
For the most part, candidates spent New Year's Day trying to energize supporters.
In the Des Moines area, Romney combined football and politics at a series of "House Party Huddles." At one, children ran around bashing one another with large, red foam mitts that read "Mitt '08."
At an Elks Lodge in Cedar Rapids, Huckabee pulled out a bass guitar and played "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Mustang Sally" with a singer and drummer, a warm-up perhaps for his appearance Wednesday with Jay Leno on NBC's "Tonight Show."
Obama's family was enthusiastic, buoyed by a Des Moines Register poll that showed him in the lead. His wife, Michelle, talked about "when Barack is the next president of the United States" and he referred to her "the next first lady of the United States."
Dozens of hands shot up in the air when Obama asked for a show of undecideds in the crowd of hundreds. "We've still got some live ones in here," he said.
His chief rival, Clinton, campaigned with her 88-year old mother, Dorothy Rodham, and daughter, Chelsea, in tow as she worked to solidify her already strong support among female voters. Her husband, former President Clinton, campaigned separately, joking at one event that he was missing out on a day of football games and was being "the quintessential indolent American male on New Year's Day."
His faux grumbling aside, Clinton's campaign seized on a CNN poll that had her in the lead as aides picked apart the methodology of the Register survey.
"I'm feeling great!" she said at her first event in Ames. Working hard to grab the momentum, Clinton joked about the extremes to which she would go to win support, recalling a campaign appearance among farmers and ranchers in an arena that normally is the site of cattle auctions.
"If you want to look inside my mouth to figure out whether you want to vote for me, that's fine, too," Clinton quipped. "Whatever it takes."
Edwards also brought his wife and two young children along for the final push, a "marathon for the middle class" during which he will continue to hammer away at pocketbook issues on an overnight drive to energize backers and deliver them to the caucuses.
"We hope for the next 36 hours that all of you will be as focused and energized as we are," he said, beginning the tour with a rally before about 500 people jammed into a ballroom at the student union at Iowa State University in Ames.
All three also turned to the airwaves to urge voters to attend caucuses.
Clinton and Obama were to air longer-than-usual, two-minute ads during Wednesday's evening news programs. Edwards bought a full-page ad in the Des Moines Register featuring a testimonial from a worker who was laid off from an Iowa Maytag plant. The worker also will appear in a one-minute TV ad for Edwards.
In a sign of the battles beyond Iowa, Republican John McCain, who isn't playing Iowa as aggressively as he is New Hampshire, opened a new line of criticism against Romney in a new Web video that could end up on TV. "Mitt Romney says the next president doesn't need foreign policy experience," it says.
Conversely, Romney began airing an ad in New Hampshire that shifts away from his criticism of his rivals and urges people to "vote for tomorrow."