WASHINGTON — Iowa was crawling with presidential candidates again this week, as hopefuls went into overdrive in the final days before a Christmas break, then one last scramble until the first votes are cast on Jan. 3.
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson mounted a marathon 15-day bus tour through the state; he plans to hit 50 locales. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton launched a "likability" tour aimed at persuading Iowa voters that she's really warm and fuzzy once you get to know her; she packed husband Bill and former NBA legend Magic Johnson alongside to help sell the message.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards dueled for the affection of rural Iowans, who hold disproportionate influence under the arcane voting system of Iowa's caucuses.
And the rest of the pack struggled as always to get noticed.
In that department, Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd won hands down; he moved his whole family to Iowa in the fall. Unfortunately, he's still scoring only about 1 percent in polls.
Iowans will get a break on Christmas Day, but only briefly, for the campaigns will hit white heat the day after and stay there the final week, calling thousands of voters, staging rallies, blaring TV ads, cramming mailboxes with brochures and anything else they can think of. Hang on, Iowans — for you, it's almost over.
TIS THE SEASON
Even presidential candidates must defer to Christmas, so voters in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are being deluged with campaign ads featuring Christmas themes.
From edgy to saccharine, they all manage to reflect the contenders' self-images — or the images they want voters to see. There's Rudy Giuliani waxing sarcastic with Santa, Hillary Clinton suggesting she's got the best gift ideas and Mike Huckabee's "birth of Christ" line.
One new TV ad for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee raised some eyebrows because it featured a luminous white image that looked like a cross hovering over the former Baptist preacher's shoulder. It's said to be a bookshelf, but the image is unmistakably a cross. Huckabee's ardent courtship of evangelical voters raises concerns in some quarters about whether he recognizes the distance separating church from state. Another of his ads boldly proclaims him to be a "Christian leader" in large capital letters.
One of Huckabee's rivals, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, offered this tart observation this week when asked on "Fox & Friends" about the Huckabee "floating-cross" ad:
"It reminds me of something (author) Sinclair Lewis said, that when fascism comes to this country, it'll be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross."
ONE DOWN, MANY TO GO
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., abandoned his presidential campaign on Thursday, not that many people had noticed it. He tried to harness anger at illegal immigration into a rationale for his entire campaign, and polls show that almost nobody bought it. Upon stepping aside, Tancredo endorsed Romney.
Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential nominee seven years ago, endorsed Republican John McCain for president on Monday, mainly because the two share a commitment to seeing the Iraq war through.
Lieberman, now an independent Democrat who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, framed his endorsement as an effort at post-partisanship, saying the Arizona senator could "create a new American unity."
It was a good week for McCain, who's rebounding in polls of New Hampshire, where he's making an all-or-nothing stand. He picked up editorial-page endorsements from The Boston Globe and the Des Moines Register last weekend, as well.
Of course, those pages' messages are decidedly mixed. Both chose to recommend candidates for each party, so besides McCain for Republicans, the Globe commended Barack Obama for Democrats, while the Register blessed Hillary Clinton. Readers may puzzle over how one editorial board could endorse both pro-war McCain and anti-war Clinton or Obama, but with readership plummeting, newspapers are increasingly creative these days.
The week ahead: After the briefest of Christmas breaks, campaigning resumes in a frenzy, with all major candidates racing around Iowa and some dipping into New Hampshire, which votes Jan. 8. Then there's Rudy Giuliani, who's all but written off those early voting states; the day after Christmas he's going for several days to Florida, the first big state to vote (on Jan. 29), which he's counting on to boost him back to the top. (Besides, where'd you rather be in late December?)
(Margaret Talev and David Lightman contributed.)