DES MOINES (AFP, REUTERS) - Months into their campaigns, US presidential candidates were suddenly racing against time in a final frenzied weekend of persuasion politics before Iowa kicks off the nomination process on Monday (Feb 1).
Democrat Hillary Clinton, fearful of a 2008 repeat when she was beaten to the punch in Iowa by an upstart Barack Obama, was leaving nothing to chance, stumping in the heartland on Saturday as Senator Bernie Sanders did the same, seeking to deny her yet another shot at history.
Republican Donald Trump and his nearest Ted Cruz made unmasked appeals to the evangelical conservatives so important in the first-in-the-nation contest.
And long-shot candidates like Carly Fiorina made their pitch to voters too, reminding them that polls are notoriously unreliable in Iowa, where political upsets are commonplace.
The three Democrats and 12 Republicans aiming to be their party's 2016 torchbearer are leaving it all on the field in Iowa, hosting several dozen events across this snow-swept heartland state as they gear up for Monday's debut vote in the presidential marathon.
The state is small and relatively homogeneous, but it is immensely consequential for the top finishers who can claim momentum heading into the primary in New Hampshire.
On the Republican side, it is billionaire Trump at the fore, tearing up the traditional playbook and largely avoiding the retail politics that require candidates to put in days and weeks in Iowa.
But he made the requisite appeal to evangelicals, who comprised 57 percent of caucus voters in 2012 and are expected to play a huge part in the February 1 vote.
Trump posted a short video on Facebook, showing him holding up a Bible given to him by his mother.
"I want to thank the evangelicals. I will never let you down," he said.
At a Saturday rally in Dubuque, he expressed his usual confidence - "If we win Iowa we can run the table!" - while knocking Cruz, repeating his concerns about the senator being born in Canada and questioning his eligibility to be president.
Cruz is locked in a do-or-die battle with Trump in Iowa, and is counting on a strong evangelical turnout to help propel him to victory here.
"We need godly wisdom back in the White House," Cruz supporter Pam Cobb said at a Cruz rally in Ida Grove, in northwest Iowa.
Hovering in third place is Republican Senator Marco Rubio, whose star is seen as rising perhaps just at the right time.
"You have a right to be angry," Rubio told more than 300 people at a university hall in Ames, Iowa.
"But anger is not a plan," he said in a dig at the bombastic Trump.
Rubio portrayed himself as the most electable Republican who can challenge Clinton, but warned that internal feuding will only doom the GOP in 2016.
"We are going to have our primary, and it's going to get heated," he admitted, noting the tit-for-tat negative politicking between him and Cruz.
"But in the end, we are going to bring everyone together. We have to. We cannot win if we are divided against each other."
Candidates including Rubio were bringing out their surrogates this weekend for added political firepower.
Clinton took the stage at Iowa State University in Ames with her daughter Chelsea, and former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, a gun violence victim who has helped raise concerns about the issue.
"Hillary is tough," Giffords said by way of introduction. "In the White House, she will stand up to the gun lobby."Sanders, for his part, was holding a raucous rally Saturday night in Iowa City with rockers Vampire Weekend. Some 3,500 people showed up, including Corinne Fonteyne, who is 17 but will be eligible to vote in November.
"I believe it would be powerful to have a woman president," she said. "But Bernie is the way I go."
Clinton and Sanders have been neck and neck in Iowa, but the former Secretary of State received good news Saturday with The Des Moines Register's final poll before the caucuses showing her maintaining an edge.
She leads Sanders 45 per cent to 42 per cent in the survey. In the Republican competition, Trump received 28 per cent of the support of likely Iowa caucus-goers and Cruz 23 per cent. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida was overwhelmingly the third choice, at 15 per cent. The margin of error for the poll was plus/minus 4 per cent.
With just 48 hours before the caucus doors open, Clinton earned a coveted, if not unexpected, endorsement from The New York Times, whose editorial board described her as "one of the most broadly and deeply qualified presidential candidates in history."
The paper also gave a boost to Ohio Governor John Kasich, endorsing him as the "only plausible choice for Republicans tired of the extremism and inexperience on display in this race."
Those trailing the frontrunners, including former business executive Carly Fiorina who has bounced between mid-level contender and also-ran, were counting on an Iowa miracle.
"Iowa Republicans make up their minds very late," insisted Christopher Rants, chairman of Fiorina's Iowa campaign as his candidate wooed a roomful of voters.
"We're gonna surprise some folks on Monday."