WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Waiting in line to ask Santa for a Wii, 9-year-old D.J. McGrath was understandably distracted when politics came up, but that's the way it is in Iowa this Christmas.
A kiosk with colorful geegaws, just 20 feet from the jolly elf's throne at Jordan Creek Town Center mall, drew D.J.'s eye. But there also stood life-size cutouts of Ronald Reagan and Hillary Clinton, bumper stickers and campaign buttons, Rudy Giuliani wristwatches and Barack Obama coffee mugs.
Iowa awaits "the Christmas caucuses" on Jan. 3 - weeks earlier than in past elections. And political organizers are worried that voters like D.J.'s parents might find the holidays a bit distracting from ... politics.
Never in the history of Iowa's first-in-the-nation contests have campaigns been put so clearly in the awkward position of having to intrude on the holiday season while hunting for votes.
"The impact of the holidays? It's a question to which everyone has an opinion and nobody has the answer," said Rich Galen, a senior adviser to Republican Fred Thompson's campaign. The former Tennessee senator will spend most of the next two weeks pressing the flesh in Iowa, except for a one-day trip home for Christmas.
"It's the calendar that we've got. You want to win Iowa, you campaign the week before Christmas and the week after," Galen said. "Now whether or not anyone will be paying attention, we'll see on January 3."
Beyond applying the sometimes-nasty art of political advertising to this season of goodwill, candidates are asking supporters to cut short holiday vacations to attend the caucuses.
Republican Mitt Romney last week drew about 700 people to a "Christmas party" at Linn-Mar High School in the town of Marion, allowing the campaign to show that he, a Mormon, observes the birth of Jesus as do other Christians. Officials at the publicly funded school balked, however, at decorating the venue with Santa figures and a Christmas tree, said Romney spokesman Tim Albrecht.
"Clearly, the season is something we're going to have to take into consideration" when scheduling TV ads, Albrecht said.
Last week, the candidates' TV commercials appeared to be tilting toward the positive. But cyberspace remained untouched by holiday cheer, as campaigns in both parties continued to churn out attack e-mails.
"My guess is the candidates will cease and desist on Christmas Eve - and resume operations, mail and phones, soon after Santa departs through the back door," said Donna Brazile, who ran Democrat Al Gore's presidential bid in 2000. (She isn't working for a candidate this time.)
Some campaigns may avoid TV ads in deference to the holidays, but pursue other media.
"Holidays are huge for radio," said Republican political consultant Darrell Williams of the Strategic Media Group firm. "People want to hear Christmas music."
Direct mail is also tempting. Williams said that simple name identification could be a tremendous factor in the caucuses and that candidates would be foolish to sacrifice a chance at exposure - even if it means cramming mailboxes full.
"Think of how many catalogs you're getting this time of year," Williams said. "(Voters) don't mind getting some more....
"If I were advising my guys, I'd make sure they were seen in churches on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. I'd make sure they were saying merry Christmas to as many people as possible. To some people this may seem sort of callous, but in some ways it's a celebration of our electioneering process."
For Thanksgiving, Democrat Chris Dodd of Connecticut - who moved his family to Des Moines for the campaign - ate turkey with an eastern Iowa family at their farm home and is still telling reporters about it.
But rivals Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Obama stayed away from the state and sent their greetings by e-mail, as did Republican Rudy Giuliani.
"You can't be coy" and disregard the season, said Democratic political consultant Martin Hamburger. "You don't say 'Merry Christmas from Hillary Clinton,' but you say something in spirit with the times.
"For Hillary I might subtly make a home-and-hearth appeal to women voters. 'A time of bringing families together.' Other candidates might make a point on peace."
For his part, Obama will not be bothering anybody in Iowa with a phone call on Christmas Day, spokesman Tommy Vietor pledged.
Some don't mind being bothered.
Craig Baldwin, the GOP chairman of Grundy County, will cut short a holiday stay in Colorado to help organize his local caucuses.
"My wife doesn't always like it, but political junkies like me celebrate Christmas and the caucuses with the same enthusiasm. It's joy to the world and joy to the caucus," he said.
With extended families gathering just days before caucus night, some observers expect cousins, aunts and grandfathers to hash out the issues and lobby around the hearth. These "mini-caucuses" could decide an outcome that none of the polls predict.
"When you just take a poll of Iowans, they can be too nice. They don't want to tell you - especially if you're a candidate - they don't like you," said Wally Horn of Cedar Rapids, the longest-sitting senator in the Iowa legislature.
"But they'll be honest with their loved ones. And if the talk gets out of hand and someone gets irate, your uncle will say, 'Hey, it's Christmas. Shut up.'"
Plenty of voters here - including Brenda Lee, 47, of Des Moines - say the non-stop politics already has soiled this holiday season. "It's getting to be too much and I'm too busy," she harrumphed.
But it's not that way in the Clive, Iowa, home of David and Genienne McGrath, little D.J.'s parents.
David's a Republican, Genienne's a Democrat. They say they both appreciate the caucus process - no matter what time of year.
"You can always tune out the commercials" if they intrude on your Christmas spirit, said David McGrath. "Get your family a Tivo. Boop, boop, boop — right over the political ads."
(Montgomery and Canon report for The Kansas City Star)