Game on for Obama the Barnstormer? (1) Political Power Bass: Presidential Hopeful Mike Huckabee (Left) Plays His Bass during an Appearance on Jay Leno's the Tonight Show (2) Front-Runners: Hillary Clinton (Far Left) Is Still Ahead in the Polls but Barack Obama, Seen above with His Wife Michelle at a Campaign Rally in Des Moines, Could Still Take the Lead

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AT A PACKED church hall in Indianola, Iowa, where more than 900 peoplehave come to hear Barack Obama, Marilyn Piper cuts an unlikely figure. Drapedin pearls, her arms still goosebumped from the subzero temperatures outside,she wears a satin ivory wedding dress and clasps the tuxedoed arm of her groom,Dean.

"We came straight from our reception, in fact we cut it short a little to gethere on time," she says. "I've never voted in a caucus before but Obama reallyexcites me and even though today is my wedding day, I want to hear what he hasto say." Later she joins in the applause as Obama, 45, gives a barnstormingspeech and implores the crowd: "There is a moment in the life of everygeneration to make their mark in history and this is that moment. If you standwith me, we can take Iowa, we can win the Democratic nomination, we can win theNovember election, we can change America and we can change the world."First-time caucus-goers such as Marilyn are expected to make up half the votersat today's Iowa caucus and could hold the key to victory as the state kicks offthe closest presidential primary race in living memory. Late polls show thatObamaattempting to become America's first black presidentis favourite to win the Democrat nomination in this mid-western state, with onepoll putting him on 32 per cent over 25 per cent for Hillary Clinton and 24 percent for John Edwards. But with 40 per cent of voters saying they may stillchange their mind, anything can happen.

On the Republican side, with heavyweights Rudy Giuliani and John McCain largelybypassing Iowa, it's neck-andneck between the formerArkansas governor andbass-guitar-playing Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, and his archconservativerival, the former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney. Here the story hasbeen the rise from nowhere of a political maverick, self-styled the"Huckaboom", despite being outspent 20-to-one by Romney.

For the past few days, I have followed the major candidatesboth Democrat and Republicanas they've crisscrossed snow-covered Iowa, whose three million people, 95 percent white, have a disproportionately large influence on who will become the44th president of the United States.

Author Bill Bryson, who grew up in the state capital Des Moines, once said theplace was so boring that they ought to put up a sign saying: "Welcome to DesMoinesthis is what death is like." But the booming ethanol industry has transformedthe fortunes of this flat, corn-belt state, and while there is still notourism, Iowa holds a unique position as the home of the political junkie.

Indeed, its caucus system might be much-maligned but what you see in the weeksleading up to it is genuine "retail politics" where the public get to meet andscrutinise each candidate in personto lift the bonnet, kick the tyres and take them out for a test drive.

Judging by the crowds flocking to hear Obamaon average five times the size pulled by Clintonit's the kind of environment that suits the charismatic senator from Illinoisrather more than his New York counterpart.

At Hillary's and Bill's New Year's Eve bash in Des Moines, billed by the NewYork Post as "the hottest ticket in town", Hillary, 60, appeared to be stuck onauto-pilot. I watched as she addressed a disappointing crowd of 250 supporters(mostly elderly couples and middleaged women) who had been waiting for twohours for her arrival. She spoke for just three minutes.

Later I got alongside her andas Hillary shook my hand, assuming I was a potential voterI asked if she was happy with how her campaign was going. Her smile neverwavered as she said "thank you for coming to support me" but she hadn'tregistered my question, and her eyes had already moved on to the next person.

The most telling moment came when the crowd, corralled behind metal barriersnot employed by any other candidate, surged forward to touch, hug and embracenot her but her former president husband. …


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