Barack Obama is hitting his stride, just as Hillary Clinton’s Democratic campaign stutters, setting up a closely fought sprint to January’s first White House nominating contest.

With the race a statistical dead heat in Iowa, before the crucial nominating caucuses on January 3, and a dogfight in New Hampshire, which votes five days later, both candidates launched one last push to win over undecided voters in Iowa amid freezing winter weather.

Most surveys show Obama rising, and the longtime frontrunner sliding, suggesting that the young senator’s timing may be spot on.

Clinton, forced earlier to deny her campaign was in disarray, got a much-needed boost on Saturday, winning the coveted support of the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s only statewide daily.

The paper said Clinton’s “readiness to lead” set her apart from a “constellation of possible stars” in the Democratic party, especially Obama, who it said had the potential to be a fine president.

“When Obama speaks before a crowd, he can be more inspirational than Clinton. Yet, with his relative inexperience, it’s hard to feel as confident he could accomplish the daunting agenda that lies ahead,” the paper said.

But looking beyond Iowa to the January 8 first-in-the-nation primary election in New Hampshire, Obama on Sunday won the backing of the influential Boston Globe newspaper, a New England political power broker.

Clinton’s campaign, buoyed by the Iowa paper’s backing, planned to have the former first lady and her allies visit all 99 of the state’s counties in the next five days — with the help of what it calls the “Hill-A-Copter.”

Yet an Obama spurt which began in Iowa appears to be spreading, raising doubts about the notion that Clinton can afford a loss in Iowa, due to a lead in national polls and a ‘firewall’ in later states.

“The impression starting to form out here is the same,” said Dante Scala, a professor at the University of New Hampshire.

“From Hillary Clinton having a large lead, to Hillary Clinton basically being in a statistical tie — a one point lead is not a very high wall.”

Should the Illinois senator win the nomination, an encounter this week between the foes on an airport tarmac in Washington may come to be seen as the moment when history’s course was set.

Clinton, who once reigned over the Democratic field, had to offer an embarrassing personal apology, after an aide recently raised Obama’s dabbling in drugs as a wayward teenager, in her campaign’s latest clumsy attack on him.

Hours later, in the last pre-caucuses Democratic debate, Obama displayed a new confidence, and brushed aside Clinton, who’s previous imperiousness was replaced by a scrappy new persona.

Whether this is an Obama boom, or an Obama bust, will likely be decided by the rivals’ exhausting treks through Iowa in the next 17 days.

Clinton aims to solidify her support among women and older voters who are most likely to caucus. Obama hopes to confound predictions his legions of young voters will not show up to caucus.

There can be few Americans, let alone Iowans who have not formed an opinion of Clinton by now — so she may also have to worry her support has peaked.

Most of the campaign’s recent missteps, the drugs remarks, a much mocked email about Obama setting his sights on the White House in kindergarten, reflect the difficulty Clinton has had in attacking her rival.

Iowans disdain gutter politics, so “going negative” on Obama is a huge risk.

Obama knows that, and Saturday sought the moral high ground.

“There’s a history of politics being all about slash and burn and taking folks down and what I recall the Clinton’s themselves calling ‘the politics of personal destruction,'” he said.

“My suspicion is that that’s just not where the country is at right now.”

One beneficiary of a Clinton/Obama slugfest might be John Edwards, a threat in the state, who hopes to surge between them for an unlikely win with help from rural voters.

The Clinton strategy is to sow doubt about Obama among Democrats who fear again nominating a punching bag for Republicans and contrast her years in public life, with Obama’s perceived inexperience.

“When is the last time we elected a president based on one year of service in the Senate before he started running?” ex-president Bill Clinton asked in an television interview Friday.

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