After a year of position papers and policy speeches, handshakes in the summer heat and winter snow, advertising that floods mailboxes and TV screens, and too many bites of pork on a stick at too many county fairs, it’s time.
For the final arguments.
Heading into the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, the presidential candidates are boiling down their messages.
On the Democratic side, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards are in a three-way tie in the polls. Among Republicans, it’s a close race for first between two former governors — Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.
Here is a look at the closing arguments from some of the candidates.
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
The night before the caucuses on Jan. 2, Clinton will make a taped, two-minute appearance that will air during evening newscasts statewide. In the final days she has contended that she is the candidate who will be “ready on Day One” to take over the nation’s highest office, based on her experiences as first lady during her husband’s administration and as a senator from New York.
“Waiting on that president’s desk in the Oval Office will be problems that are incredibly difficult, that present challenges to our leadership in the world, to our moral authority, to our economy, to the kind of society we are and want to be,” Clinton says.
She ticks off the problems she says are facing the country and warns of the unexpected.
“That’s the nature of the job and the world in which we live. It certainly raises the stakes high for what we expect from our next president,” she says in a not-so-subtle critique of Obama. She has argued that the first-term senator from Illinois lacks the experience to be president.
Obama is turning around Clinton’s argument, telling voters he’s the candidate best able to bring change precisely because he is untainted by a long tenure in Washington. His argument boils down to “throw the bums out,” regardless of party.
“In this election it is time to turn the page,” Obama said Thursday. “In seven days, it is time to stand for change.”
He has suggested that Clinton is a polarizing figure who would be unable to break through the political gridlock.
“You know that we cannot afford four more years of the same divisive food fight in Washington,” he said.
Edwards continues his populist pitch, arguing that he is the only White House hopeful who is ready to do the most to fight for the middle class by standing up to the special interests.
“You’d better choose someone as your candidate who is ready for this battle,” he says. “Nice words will not change anything.”
Edwards came from behind to finish second in the caucuses in 2004, when he first ran for president. As part of his effort this time, he is in the middle of an eight-day, 38-county tour that will keep him in Iowa until the caucuses.
“My belief is that we desperately need to make this government work for everybody again,” he told a crowd packed into a small restaurant-bar in northeastern Iowa. “We need to stand up to the forces of corporate greed that are destroying the middle class of this country.”
The former Tennessee senator, who is behind in the polls just about everywhere, continues to hammer his conservative theme of lower taxes and limited government. At times, he adds a dose of tough, if not detailed, talk about terrorism.
“When it gets right down to it, you’re not electing a set of plans or position papers. You’re going to be electing a leader for dangerous times,” he warns, suggesting that voters think seriously about who they want giving orders from the Oval Office.
Thompson, too, is on an extended bus tour of Iowa, one that will keep him in the state through Jan. 3. He said the assassination in Pakistan of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto highlights why the United States needs strong leadership.
“It will require resolve, unity and mental toughness to do what’s necessary on all fronts. It’s the forces of civilization against the forces of anarchy. It’s us against them and we need to realize that,” Thompson said. “That’s why we’re talking about leadership and have been during this last bus tour.”
For months, the former Massachusetts governor was the leader in Iowa, but he’s now on the defensive after a surge by Huckabee. His closing argument centers on electability, and he touts his experiences in office and in life, including his background in corporate America and public service.
“In a number of ways, with the recognition that a lot of humility is necessary at a time like this, I do believe that the unique experiences I’ve had in my life have prepared me for facing the entirely new generation of challenges we face,” Romney told voters Thursday in New Hampshire.
His examples include his work to shore up the scandal-ridden 2002 Winter Olympics in the shadow of the Sept. 11 attacks, and his efforts as governor to pass a universal health insurance law in Massachusetts that has expanded private coverage to 300,000 people.
“There are other people running for president who have health care ideas,” Romney said, referring to Rudy Giuliani, who only has outlined health care principles. “Some even have health care plans. I believe I’m the only person running for president — Republican or Democrat — who can point to a health care success.”
The former Arkansas governor is playing his folksy populist card, betting that will work with evangelicals who form the bulk of his political base.
“The people of Iowa don’t want to be forgotten when someone goes to the White House,” he said, drawing contrasts with Romney, who is very wealthy and lives in the Northeast. “People in middle America feel like folks will come and campaign in Iowa and then they get elected and they forget that people out here in flyover land still exist. Some of us grew up in the middle of the country and still live here.”
The former New York mayor is trying to rally voters around the images they saw of him on Sept. 11, 2001, covered in dust from the collapsed World Trade Center towers and shoulder-to-shoulder with the first responders.
Giuliani doesn’t make the case in Iowa very often — he has been an infrequent campaigner here — but a new TV ad airing in Florida and New Hampshire and on national cable uses images of 9/11 to remind voters that he was a steady leader at the shattering start of a new and frightening era.
He argues that the country needs his leadership. And he unveiled a new slogan earlier this month: “Tested, ready, now. America needs a leader.”
McCain’s final argument is essentially the one he’s pitched in recent months, that he’s the most experienced candidate to deal with the most pressing national security issues.
New campaign commercials remind voters of the sacrifices he’s made for his country, relying on footage of the former Navy pilot’s days as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
McCain also argues that he does what is right, not what is easy. His support for sending more U.S. troops to Iraq and for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants hurt his campaign during the summer, but he is experiencing something of a resurgence that he hopes will be enough to win the GOP nomination.