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The Return of the King... for Kucinich

MANCHESTER, NH -- Anyone who has seen the trilogy of "Lord of the Rings" films knows that Aragorn is up for a daunting battle. And so it should probably come as no surprise that the actor who played the king has thrown himself into the New Hampshire primary battle at the side of a candidate who faces a test that is the equivalent of Mr. Frodo's journey up Mount Doom in Mordor.

Film star Viggo Mortensen was so angered over the exclusion of Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich from the last Democratic presidential debate before Tuesday's first-in-the-nation primary that he jumped on a red eye flight from the west coast to not just endorse the anti-war Democrat who has proposed impeaching Vice President Dick Cheney but to campaign on Sunday with Kucinich in Concord and Manchester.

"When a television network has the power to decide which candidates are 'worthy' of addressing the American people, it robs the American people of their most precious right to the free flow of information and dissenting points of view," said Mortensen, a deeply political man who used the forums he was given during the "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" publicity tour to oppose the rush to war with Iraq. "I am an actor, but I am also a citizen and a voter who resents the control that big money, big media, and entrenched political interests have in deciding what I should see, what I should hear, and what I should be allowed to think."

Mortensen is not the only celebrity campaigner on the trail in New Hampshire. Actors Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon were scheduled to make multiple appearances with John Edwards Monday in Bedford, Hampton and Dover. And, of course, the Obama campaign, which once accepted a boost from queen-of-all-media Oprah Winfrey, is now holding events with a "star" that voters are lining up for blocks to meet: Barack Obama.

But the presence of Mortensen, whose chiseled features appeared on a million "Lord of the Rings" posters and who more recently earned critical and commercial acclaim for his turn as a Russian gangster in the film "Eastern Promise," gave the neglected Kucinich campaign a last-minute luster as the candidate and his supporters fought for attention in a state where they have been denied even the measure of media attention accorded rebel Republican Ron Paul.

With Mortensen at his side, Kucinich actually earned what he was denied when ABC News excluded the congressman from Saturday night's Democratic debate between Obama, Edwards and Hillary Clinton: serious attention from the cable and broadcast networks that have all set up shop in Manchester.

Kucinich and Mortensen even appeared on Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes" show for an extended segment that say the congressman engage in an extended discussion about fair tax policies and a single-payer health care system

Of course, conservative Sean Hannity took a few swings. But Mortensen struck back at the dark lord of talk television.

After complimenting Mortensen's film performances, Hannity said, "In spite of everything, I'm going to forgive your politics…"

"You don't have to," said Mortensen. " I'm not going to forgive yours."

That was typical of Mortensen's campaigning on behalf of Kucinich, which was a good deal sharper and more engaged than that of most of the absolutely exhausted contenders in New Hampshire.

Mortensen even showed up to introduce a televised forum on Constitutional concerns where this reporter spoke about the need to restore a system of checks and balance.

While the discussion of presidential accountability was surely bracing, one suspects that the dramatic moment of the evening belonged to Mortensen.

"One of the reasons why I support Dennis Kucinich is this…," said the actor.

Mortensen then pulled open his button-down shift to reveal a black t-shirt with the word "Impeach" emblazoned across the front.

Branding the Candidates

The election is almost a year away, and already it's come down to branding. In Saturday night's Democratic debate the candidates discussed in considerable detail muclear terrorism, health care, carbon emissions and other substantive issues. But what really got them excited were the vague competing mantras of "change" and ‘experience." Obama says he stands for change. Edwards, siding with Obama against Clinton for some strategic reason too subtle for me to understand, says he stands for change too. Hillary Clinton, who casts herself as the candidate of experience but actually uttered the word "change" more often than the other candidates, dismissed her rivals as fancy talkers. She said she has 35 years of experience ( which means she's counting everything she's done since getting out of law school) and knows how to make change happen. She points out, quite correctly, that electing a woman president would be a very big change, but nobody seemed too interested in that. After all, electing a black president would be a big change too.

Hillary Clinton was fiery and funny and bore no resemblance to the candidate relentless attacked in the media as rigid, incompetent, Machiavellian and screechy. You can understand her obvious frustration with the ongoing lovefest for Obama: At one point she even compared his "likeability' to that of George W. Bush. In real life, Obama has made the same sort of compromises she herself has made. As she pointed out, he said he'd vote against the Patriot Act, and then he voted for it. He casts himself as the candidate who'd repair our bellicose relations with the world, and then talks about bombing Pakistan. He talks about putting Republicans in his cabinet, as Bill Clinton did. His health-care plan, as Paul Krugman points out every day on the New York Times op-ed page, is weaker than Clinton's or Edwards'. I'm sure Hillary Clinton must be wondering what the difference is between "triangulation" and Obama's calls for unity.

Somehow Hillary Clinton is stuck as the candidate who simultaneously represents excessive compromise and excessive partisanship. For various reasons, John Edwards, who actually represents the most substantive hope for change, seems in some ways a throwback to the old-fashioned class-based politics of the 1930s. Poor Richardson, who actually has the most experience of any candidate in either party, can't get any traction at all. Obama, the black candidate who never mentions his race, gets to smile his mile-wide smile and be a rock star. Somehow he has made himself a great big humongous hope object. People can project on him what they want him to be.

It may not be fair, but then, that's show business.

The Smartest Political Strategist Not in New Hampshire

Most of the people who made Barack Obama the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination – a status that new polls suggest will be confirmed when New Hampshire voters go to the polls Tuesday – flew out of Iowa with the candidate on caucus night.

But the man who was most responsible for the win – aside, perhaps, from the candidate himself – did not make the trip.

John Norris, the old Iowa political hand who was an early and essential adviser to the Obama campaign in the first-caucus state, was back to practicing law and chairing the Iowa Utilities Board.

That put Norris far from the limelight that is now shining on Obama and those around the Illinois senator whose first-place finish in Thursday's Iowa caucuses reordered a nomination race that just a month ago was supposed to be a cakewalk for Hillary Clinton.

It is where Norris likes to be. Though he made a bid of his own for Congress in the impossible year of 2002, he does not generally seek the attention or the power that other strategists covet. Veteran campaign adviser Steve Cobble, who got to know Norris when they were both working on the Jesse Jackson campaign in 1988, says, "John Norris is the greatest organizer in modern presidential politics and nobody knows his name."

That's not precisely true. Barack Obama knows Norris' name. And the candidate has not hesitated to praise his essential ally in Iowa.

The senator knows that, to a greater extent than anyone else, Norris gave Obama's Iowa campaign its structure and focus. He introduced Obama to the right people in Dubuque and Keokuk, he figured out where to open offices and direct resources, he helped define the themes and the images of a run that saw an African-America graduate of Harvard Law School connect with white farmers, teachers and store clerks in a state that demands more of presidential candidates and their campaigns than any other.

This is not the first time that Norris has achieved the seemingly impossible in Iowa and, by extension, in American politics.

In 1988, as a young progressive activist, he coordinated Jesse Jackson's campaign in the state. It was Norris who convinced Jackson to target his campaign toward Iowa's hard-pressed farmers in a move that would artfully illustrate the candidate's ability to leap lines of race and region. When Jackson won 11 percent of the vote in the overwhelmingly white Hawkeye state, it was one of the first signs that the civil rights leader's 1988 campaign would be a far more serious and successful quest than his 1984 bid.

Norris would go on to play a critical role in the campaigns of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, managing Harkin's 1992 presidential bid to an easy win in the Iowa caucuses of that year and to victories in the Idaho and Minnesota caucuses that followed. Norris remains a trusted campaign and policy adviser to Harkin, former Governor Tom Vilsack and other Iowa politicos.

Invariably, when national Democratic contenders begin scoping out Iowa in anticipation of a caucus run, they are told to hire Norris.

Even before the Obama campaign, his reputation was as a political "miracle worker."

That's because it was Norris who, in 2003, took on the unenviable task of restoring John Kerry's viability as a contender for the 2004 Democratic presidential nod. His successful completion of the task earned Kerry an Iowa caucus win and a Democratic nomination that once seemed unattainable.

Going into the 2008 presidential race, Norris initially committed himself to Vilsack's quixotic bid for the Democratic nomination. When the former governor quit the race and backed Clinton, however, Norris threw in with Obama. He bet on the Illinoisan at a time when the senator trailed both Clinton and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards in Iowa.

With the help of Norris, Obama began to get a hearing from the grassroots Democratic operatives who are critical players on caucus night.

Norris counseled the Illinoisan to avoid the negative campaigning that always spells trouble for contenders who attempt to impose a national strategy on the distinct political culture of the Hawkeye state. And Obama listened. "Barack positioned himself as drawing distinctions with Hillary," explained toward the end of what became the most intense caucus contest ever seen in Iowa. "You don't want to get too negative -- he's come close to the line but I don't think he's gone over it with Iowa voters."

Norris argued that Clinton went too far in December when the New York senator "made it personal by calling (Obama) naive -- that was the first personal attack in the campaign. It's not a good position to be in -- being forced to go negative in the last month."

As the pressure mounted on Obama, Norris kept reminding him that Iowa was different from other states. And the candidate kept listening to the local boy.

While some questioned the wisdom of bringing Oprah Winfrey to Iowa to campaign for Obama, Norris recognized the critical role that the visit could – and, ultimately, did – play in distinguishing his candidate from the pack of Democratic contenders.

"There were so many candidates and (there was) so much going on in the state, really I think her ultimate value was to help us cut through the clutter of news and dominate some attention for Barack Obama," argues Norris, who adds that, "That pre-appearance and appearance and post-appearance of her just helped more people hear Barack's message."

Obama was wise to trust Norris. And those who seek to understand what happened in Iowa on Thursday – and what may, as a result, happen in the rest of the country – would be wise to consider the strategist's assessment that what worked in Iowa will work in New Hampshire, in other primary and caucus states and, ultimately, in November.

"(Obama's) attitude about bringing people together -- as he says addition and not division -- is a much more constructive politics for this country," Norris explains. "The Democratic Party perhaps owns that message more now because of Barack Obama's leadership."

The Tyranny of Super-Delegates

Barack Obama's stirring victory in Iowa was also a good night for our democracy. The turnout broke records and young people – who were mobilized and organized – participated in unprecedented numbers. And now that Iowans have spoken – the first citizens in the nation to do so – here's the Democratic delegate count for the top three candidates (2,025 delegates are needed to secure the nomination):

Clinton – 169

Obama – 66

Edwards – 47

"Huh?" you say. "vanden Heuvel, you made a MAJOR typo."

In fact, those numbers are correct: the third-place finishing Sen. Hillary Clinton now has over twice as many delegates as Sen. Obama, and more than three times as many delegates as the second-place candidate, Sen. John Edwards. Why? Because the Democratic Party uses an antiquated and anti-democratic nominating system that includes 842 "super-delegates" – un-pledged party leaders not chosen by the voters, free to support the candidate of their choice, and who comprise more than forty percent of the delegates needed to win the nomination. Many have already announced the candidate they will support.

In a clear attempt to protect the party establishment, this undemocratic infrastructure was created following George McGovern's landslide defeat in 1972. It was designed to prevent a nominee who was "out of sync with the rest of the party," Northeastern University political scientist William Mayer told MSNBC. Democratic National Committee member Elaine Kamarck called it a "sort of safety valve."

In 1988, Reverend Jesse Jackson http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html? res=940DE3D91030F937A15750C0A96E948260"> challenged the notion that these appointed delegates be permitted to vote for the candidate of their choosing rather than the winner of the state's caucus or primary. He was right to do so. Twenty years later, when the word "change" is being bandied about, isn't it time for the Democratic Party to give real meaning to the word? Strengthen our democracy by reforming the super-delegate system so that the people, not the party establishment, choose their candidate.

In the City

The outsize importance of the entirely unrepresentative state of Iowa in the US presidential selection process casts America as tractor pulls, county fairs, town halls and truck stops.

Yet more than 80 percent of Americans live in cities and densely-packed suburbs. The crazy primary process seems to totally stiff big cities which makes it much easier for the candidates and the media to neglect the question of a federal urban agenda. A strong federal/metropolitan relationship is arguably more important than its ever been in the wake of the Bush administration's total abdication of responsibility for urban America. But what would a progressive, proactive urban agenda look like?

A new collaborative video project between The Nation and the Drum Major Institute asks the people who know our cities best: America's mayors. In ten punchy video interviews, the mayors of Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, Rochester and Salt Lake City offer their prescriptions for a reinvigorated urban agenda.

The contrast between the mayors' priorities and the presidential candidates' rhetoric couldn't be more stark. "In presidential elections, the media and pollsters focus on issues like war, abortion, gay rights, things that, quite frankly, for those of us in the trenches, aren't the hot-button issues," says Miami Mayor Manny Diaz. "People want to know that their kids will get a good education, that their neighborhoods will be safe and clean.... It's difficult for me to understand how presidential candidates don't see that. Those are the issues that affect Americans each and every day. We [mayors] are dealing with them, and [candidates] should also be dealing with them."

New York Times' columnist Clyde Haberman recently surveyed the videos which he wrote help fill the "silence" on urban issues in the presidential campaign to date.

Watch Diaz and the others at MayorTV.com for insights into urban issues, presidential politics and the elections.

Writing the New Narrative of American Politics in Precinct 19

DUBUQUE – As they left Dubuque County Precinct 19's Democratic presidential caucus, supporters of Illinois Senator Barack Obama grabbed up campaign signs they had placed a few hours earlier outside downtown Dubuque's Carnegie-Stout Library.

"We'll need these in November," they shouted with delight, expressing the confidence that comes with having just written a new narrative for the 2008 presidential race.

The polls going into Thursday night's Iowa caucuses showed Obama leading New York Senator Hillary Clinton, the national frontrunner, and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who at one time was the Iowa front-runner. But his backers, most of them young and many first-time caucus participants, were not quite ready to believe it when they showed up to caucus at the library on Dubuque's Bluff Street.

But, as in so many of the 3,000 precincts across Iowa, the Obama backers of Precinct 19 knew within minutes that something remarkable, something beyond their wildest hopes, was about to play out.

Obama would win not just Precinct 19 but the whole of the first-caucus state of Iowa, taking 38 percent of the statewide vote to 30 percent for Edwards and 29 percent for Clinton. On the strength of his Iowa win, Obama declared, "Change is coming to America!"

Even as the Iowa results were being tabulated, change was coming to the race for the Democratic nomination for president.

Two senior senators, Delaware Senator Joe Biden and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, signaled that they would drop out of the Democratic race. The campaign of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who finished fourth in Iowa with just two percent of the caucus votes, was on life support going into next Tuesday's critical New Hampshire primary. And former front-runner Hillary Clinton was struggling to right her campaign before next Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.

"We beat the Clinton machine!" shouted Gabe Ward, a 29-year-old Obama team leader for Precinct 19. "We beat the expectations. And we did it by turning out a whole new generation of Democratic voters."

It had been said for weeks that if turnout was high for the caucuses, Obama would have the advantage.

Turnout was not just high in Precinct 19, it was extraordinary. In 2004, when Democrats had a very competitive contest for the nomination, 77 people showed up for the caucus in downtown Dubuque.

Last night, 219 people showed up. The crowd spilled out of the third-floor auditorium of the library into adjoining rooms.

When caucus chair Nick Lucy asked newcomers to raise their hands, roughly half of the people in the room indicated that this was their first time caucuses.

"Wow!" declared Lucy, a veteran Dubuque Democrat.

It was the same across Iowa, where Democratic turnout for the caucuses almost doubled to 220,000 on the strength of a massive influx of young voters. Seated front and center for the Precinct 19 caucuses was Brianna Cleland, a 22-year-old recent college graduate who is now teaching in Dubuque. How much did she know about caucusing? "Not much until today," she admitted. "I had someone explain it to me this morning. It sounded like a skewed way of picking dodge ball teams. But I knew I wanted to do it."

And she knew who she wanted to do it for.

"I really want to make something happen in America," she explained. "And the way to do that is with someone new, with someone different, and that's Barack Obama."

Pre-caucus polls showed that Iowa Democrats wanted change. And Obama was the embodiment of that demand.

"I'm ready for change and I fell that Obama is the change candidate," said 25-year-old Liz Wagner, a high school social studies teacher who caucuses wearing an orange "I Caucus for Darfur" t-shirt that expressed her concern for a neglected region of Africa and her desire for the new and more engaged foreign policies Obama promised on the campaign trail.

"I'm glad that he was opposed to the Iraq War before it started," Wagner said of Obama. "It shows he has some judgment. That's more that you can say about most of the other candidates or most of the Democrats in Congress."

When it was announced that 89 of the people in the room had signed in as Obama supporters, Wagner and those around her leapt to their feet and cheered. That was almost the number caucusing for Hillary Clinton – 46 -- and dramatically more than the 18 who registered for Edwards.

Clinton and Edwards backers were clearly deflated, as were supporters of Delaware Senator Joe Biden, who tallied 18, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, none of whom attracted even 10 backers to the Precinct 19 caucus.

Caucuses are different from elections, however. The initial count is just that, an initial count. Then comes the jockeying for support from backers of candidates who fell short.

To gain one of Precinct 19's seven delegates to the county convention in March – the next stage in the process of selecting delegates to this summer's Democratic National Convention – a candidate had to have 33 caucusers . The Edwards and Biden campaigns started hustling immediately to win over backers of Richardson, Dodd and Kucinich, as well as uncommitted caucusers. At the same time, Obama and Clinton backers sought to up their tallies.

It was a wild scene. Katherine Kluseman, an arts administrator, walked from group to group announcing, "If anyone is even remotely interested in John Edwards and his message… come join up for Edwards."

"C'mon over for Joe Biden," shouted Chad Witthoeft, a local bar owner. When Richardson backers suggested that Biden's people might join them in supporting the New Mexico governor, Witthoeft said, "This about the signal you're sending. Think about who could be vice president. Richardson looks like (the late ‘Saturday Night Live' star) John Belushi."

When all was said and done, Edwards and Biden both reached the threshold. But Obama's crew went from strength to strength, attracting backers from the Kucinich and Richardson camps in sufficient numbers to secure three delegates, while Clinton won 2 and Edwards and Biden had one each.

Statewide, Obama secured 940 delegates to the state convention, while Edwards had 744. Clinton got 737. Richardson had 53, Biden had 23, Dodd had 1.

Before the night was done, Obama would tell a crowd of wildly-cheering supporters at his victory party in Des Moines that "on this January night, at this defining moment in our history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do."

"We are ready to believe again," declared the senator.

The folks in Dubuque's Precinct 19 weren't able to make it to Des Moines. But they understood exactly what Obama was saying. They had lived it on a cold January night in Iowa.

"My friends in Oregon have been lobbying me to participate in the caucuses," explained Marianne Oberdoerster, a 40-year-old member of the staff at Loras College who recently moved to Dubuque from the west coast. "They all say: You've got the power. And I guess we do. Isn't that remarkable? We have the power. We've made Barack Obama a serious contender for president of the United States."

Nader's Stealth Support for Edwards (Cont...)

By backing John Edwards' presidential campaign this week, Ralph Nader offered "rare praise for a leading Democratic politician," as The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel explained. After all, the consumer advocate is a Green Party hero and Democratic Party nemesis. Now the New York Times Katharine Seelye wonders whether the Edwards Campaign is trying to duck Nader's praise, noting it has blasted press releases about minor endorsements and free ice cream, while there is radio silence on any developments involving the (in)famous Ralph Nader:

Is the campaign is more eager to boast about handing out free ice cream in January than to mention Mr. Nader's endorsement? The Edwards camp confirms that they did not issue a release, saying they believe that Mr. Nader did. Why not? No response. [...] The silence from the Edwards camp may be a new sign of how far Mr. Nader has fallen in public esteem from his days as the nation's chief consumer advocate.

 

Nader is clearly anathema to Democratic activists. But Edwards Campaign Manager David Bonior did welcome Nader's support, with a 2000 caveat, when I asked him about it on Tuesday:

 

We're pleased to have support from people from all walks of life around the country. We disagreed with Ralph Nader obviously about what he did in 2000, but we're pleased to have support from [Iowa First Lady] Mary Culver, from Ralph, from all kinds of folks...

 

So Bonior doesn't think Nader is so electorally toxic that his support must be rebuffed. I don't think Nader cuts any ice with Democrats in Iowa, though he could still be useful in mobilizing some progressive and radical voters in a general election.

A Fierce Populism and the Soft Promise of "More Light"

DES MOINES -- Embracing the legacy of a grandfather who "worked the graveyard shift... in the mills," quoting Democratic icons Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and recounting the story of a teenage girl who died after being denied health care, John Edwards closed what has become a fiercely-populist Iowa caucus campaign with a roaring condemnation of war profiteering in Iraq and corporate abuse at home.

Sounding themes rarely heard from major candidates of either party in recent decades, the former senator from North Carolina attacked "the glorification of corporate profit" that would leave "children living on the streets and in cars while CEOs make billions and billions of dollars."

"This is insanity, and it must stop!" shouted Edwards in a speech that attacked by name Blackwater, Halliburton, Exxon-Mobil and other corporations. And the crowd of steelworkers, carpenters, nurses and family farmers -- one of the largest assembled for any candidate during the course of the campaign leading up to Thursday's caucuses -- responded with wild applause for Edwards' promise to break "the iron grip" of corporate power.

The crowd at the Edwards event numbered more than 3,000, roughly twice that assembled at Des Moines-area rallies Wednesday night for Illinois Senator Barack Obama and New York Senator Hillary Clinton.

Of course, Edwards had help. Singer John Mellencamp joined the candidate on stage at the Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines. The popular performer, who helped to organize the Farm Aid concerts, drew plenty of wavering voters to the event.

Whether Edwards reached those sympathetic-but-uncertain voters will decide the fate of a campaign that will have a difficult time moving forward without an Iowa win.

There is little question now that Edwards and Obama are competing with one another for the votes of Iowans who want to nominate an agent of change. This week's Des Moines Register survey of likely Democratic caucus goers found that voters were more interested, by a 2-1 margin, in selecting a candidate who would shift the direction of the nation than in choosing one who merely offers the promise of sound leadership.

Clinton's got the clear advantage among those who are most interested in leadership skills. And she could still win with their support.

But Edwards and Obama are grabbing for the "change" mantle that each man believes has the potential to vault him into position to displace Clinton as the national front-runner.

Edwards and Obama are going at it from decidedly different directions, however. Since emerging as the leader in surveys of likely caucus-goers, Obama has waged a relatively soft and safe, "can't-we-all-just-get-along" campaign -- going so far as to air television and radio ads celebrating the appeal of his centrist themes to Republicans who his campaign specifically urges to caucus on his behalf. (In Iowa, anyone who shows up at a party caucus can participate.)

Obama's still ahead in most Iowa polls. But, as Edwards has surged in recent weeks, the Illinoisan has picked up some of his rival's populist langauge. One of Obama's last television ads has the senator declaring that, "I've spent my life working for change that's made a real difference in the lives of real people. That's why I passed up a job on Wall Street to fight joblessness and poverty on the streets of Chicago when the local steel plant closed. That's why I turned down the corporate law firms to work as a civil rights lawyer, to fight for those who've been denied opportunity."

But even in his "populist" commercial, Obama features "I brought Democrats and Republicans together" themes.

No one should doubt the power of Obama's unity appeal. He delivers it well. And, after the divisiveness of the Bush-Cheney years, there is indeed something refreshing about the prospect of a president who embraces the promise of negotiation and compromise.

"Change isn't going to come because people are hollering more, talking tough... We don't need more heat. We need more light," says Obama, clearly seeking to contrast his message with that of Edwards.

Edwards begs to differ.

He is not looking for the middle ground at this point. He's not promising "win-win" solutions.

"I don't believe you can sit at a table and negotiate with drug companies, insurance companies and oil companies and hope that they will voluntarily give their power away," the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee explained in Des Moines Wednesday night. "They will give their power away when we take their power away."

Though he did not mention Obama by name, it was pretty clear that Edwards was speaking of his more soft-spoken rival when he declared "the status quo and good intentions are not enough."

"Corporate greed is robbing our children of the promise of America. It is time for us to fight back," shouted Edwards to the cheering crowd at the Val Air ballroom. "You better know that tomorrow night you need to send a fighter and a warrior into that battle on your behalf."

What Edwards knows is that -- while Obama can afford to run second and perhaps even third in Iowa -- the option is not available to him. Without an Iowa win, Edwards does not have the money or the poll numbers to renew his candidacy in the New Hampshire primary that comes barely 100 hours after the caucuses finish.

So Edwards is telling Iowa Democrats that Thursday is the populist make-or-break moment. And he is promising them an epic shift in the political process if they embrace it.

"What will happen when you are finished is that you will start a tidal wave of change that will sweep across this country with a power that cannot be changed, that cannot be stopped," says Edwards.

Actually, what will happen depends on what Iowans decide in a matter of hours. They want change. But they have yet to define the sort of change they want. That will happen Thursday night, when caucus goers choose between the soft promise of Barack Obama and the edgier populism of John Edwards. Or when they divide closely enough between the two to give a win, and the momentum that goes with it, to the woman who until a few months ago was supposed to have this thing all wrapped up.

The Race Begins

As Nation.com readers need no reminding, tomorrow residents of Iowa will become the first citizens in the country to weigh in on the presidential nominees. But not all residents of the state get to vote because it uses a caucus system (as does Nevada) instead of an open primary.

Watch this video by the youth voting group, Why Tuesday, if you're confused about the caucusing.

Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton have special sites and videos that offer instructions for how to caucus. Clinton emphasizes how easy it is, and Obama's and Edwards' step-by-step instructional videos make the point that caucusing is cool.

In comparison, New Hampshire, the second state to vote on a presidential nominee, holds its primary on January 8 and is the first to let its entire voting population vote on each nominee. New Hampshire treasures its placement in the primary calendar, and people there take its primary role very seriously. Candidates and campaign staff know that unless they've stood in a voter's living room, the voters in these two first states don't consider you a real candidate. There's even a truism in Iowa that no one caucuses for a candidate that they haven't met.

After New Hampshire, Michigan follows on January 15, and South Carolina -- the first Southern state -- holds its primary on January 26, with the controversial early Florida vote three days later. Then there's Tsunami-Tuesday, as much of the rest of the country chimes in on February 5.

If I was an Iowa resident I'd caucus for Obama. Take The Nation's unscientific straw poll to tell us who you support and read The Nation's latest editorial to see what the magazine is thinking about the Democratic field.