DES MOINES — Now, at last, it's the voters' turn.
Starting Thursday night in Iowa, followed by a blur of state-by-state voting over the next month and culminating in a 22-state "Tsunami Tuesday" on Feb. 5, the American people begin picking presidential candidates for the two major political parties and charting a new course for the country.
They do so after the longest, costliest election run-up in American history, the first since 1920 with no heir apparent in either party. Both parties are eager to turn the page on the George W. Bush era, particularly Democrats angry about the Iraq war, but also Republicans unhappy about such issues as illegal immigration.
On Wednesday, as the voting neared, candidates made their final pitches to Iowans in ubiquitous television ads and dashed around the snow-covered state by bus and plane, trying to inspire their supporters to turn out Thursday night.
By Wednesday, the campaign story line was very familiar to Iowans, who've been inundated since the first salvos last January. Campaigns and interest groups spent more than $20 million on TV ads that appeared more than 10,000 times. Candidates visited Iowa towns more than 2,000 times.
On the Democratic side, the candidates have offered similar views on expanding health care and ending the Iraq war, and based their final pitches on their political styles, experience and ability to win in November.
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois raced to five rallies across eastern and central Iowa before closing the day before midnight at a Des Moines high school where a group of students support him.
He appealed to newcomers to the political process — young people, independents, people who've never gone to a precinct caucus — to propel him to victory. And he dared them to prove the pundits wrong.
"They don't think you're going to show up!" he told a rally near the University of Iowa. "Are you going to prove 'em wrong?" he asked to cheers.
Julia Wong, 24, a graduate student in the audience, said she cut short her winter break visit with her family in Oregon to attend her first caucus.
"This is the first time in my life I've had the chance to be part of an election that would make a huge difference," she said. "I think Barack Obama is a candidate who can unite the country. I think most of the other Democratic candidates are polarizing figures."
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina finished his long courtship of Iowa Democrats with a marathon, 36-hour bus trip and a caucus-eve concert with singer John Mellencamp.
"We are excited by your energy and enthusiasm," Edwards told several dozen supporters in tiny Centerville before dawn Wednesday. "We are sort of running on adrenalin right now."
Edwards hoped for a small turnout on Thursday, knowing his support comes from small-town and rural Iowans who've been through caucuses before, and that a big turnout would signal a surge of newcomers for Clinton or Obama.
Promising to fight corporate interests to expand health care and help the middle class, he relied on the voice of a laid-off Iowa Maytag worker in his closing television pitch. In the ad, Doug Bishop told how Edwards vowed to fight to protect jobs. "I want a guy that's going to sit down and look a seven year-old kid in the eye and tell him, 'I'm going to fight for your dad's job,' " Bishop said in the ad. "That's what I want."
Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York barnstormed the state by jet Wednesday, pitching her experience at stop after stop and on TV.
"After all the town meetings, the pie and coffee, it comes down to this: Who is ready to be president and ready to start solving the big challenges we face on day one?" Clinton said in a two-minute ad that aired Wednesday evening.
After touring the state, she joined her husband Bill for an evening rally in Des Moines.
She hoped to boost turnout among women, particularly older women who haven't participated before in caucuses.
The Republican candidates vowed to keep taxes low, combat illegal immigration, oppose abortion and, with one exception, win the war in Iraq.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee urged followers to shake up the party by propelling him to victory in a contest where he's been outspent 20-1 and harshly criticized by party icons such as Rush Limbaugh.
"You can tell your grandchildren the caucus turned America on its ear. We decided to stand on issues that mattered to us," he said in Mason City.
A Baptist preacher, he appealed anew to cultural conservatives who've fueled his rise in the polls, making references to his faith, vowing to oppose abortion and protect traditional marriage while strengthening the military.
Kay Nelson, a homemaker, was still unsure. "I'll pray for wise counsel," she said.
Huckabee then took an unconventional approach — not his first of the campaign — leaving Iowa Wednesday to fly to Los Angeles, appear on the Jay Leno show, then jet back to resume campaigning Thursday morning.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts ended on an upbeat, smiling note after weeks of attacking Huckabee as tax-raising, illegal immigrant-loving liberal in conservative clothing.
"You get to meet so many nice people," Romney said in an airplane hangar in Cedar Rapids. "Right here in Iowa, we've made so many friends. So true, so lasting."
Romney hoped to appeal to all wings of the party while setting aside any reservations about his Mormon faith among the Christian conservatives who make up 40 percent of the Republican vote in the state.
It worked for Rosalie Shoemaker, an Iowa City special education assistant who walked in undecided and walked out a Romney supporter.
"I have friends who are Mormon, and we know what kind of people they are," she said, calling them people with strong values.
A possible wildcard, Sen. John McCain of Arizona rushed back to Iowa Wednesday in hopes of pulling off a surprise third-place finish.
McCain had largely shunned the state all year, declining to compete in a straw poll last August, refusing to spend much time campaigning there or any money advertising.
Yet polls showed Iowa Republicans warming to the maverick anyway, and he swept in looking to sneak past second-tier rivals such as former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.
STAKES FOR CANDIDATES IN IOWA
A quick guide to cut through the spin and handicap the Iowa race yourself Thursday night:
Hillary Clinton. A win reinforces her claim that she's a winner. A loss raises doubts about whether she's too damaged to win, even in her own party, let alone a general election. But she has the cash and support to fight all the way.
Barack Obama. A win over Clinton makes him a giant-killer and gives him momentum. He has the cash and support across the country to keep going, though, even if he finishes second or a close third.
John Edwards. Needs to win. He's spent the most time there, and it's his best state. Might survive a close second, but doesn't have the cash or support elsewhere to keep going after anything but a very close third-place finish.
Bill Richardson, Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd. Need to be within a point or two of the top three to stay in the race. Anything farther back sends them home.
Mike Huckabee. A win rocks the Republican Party, where elites such as Rush Limbaugh, National Review and Club for Growth are lining up to stop him. Even a close second sends him on to fight in other states.
Mitt Romney. Must win. He's spent millions, held 235 events and led for months. Second place makes it very hard to tell Republicans elsewhere why he's a winner.
John McCain. Third place is a big win for a guy who barely campaigned in the state and said he'd end subsidies for corn-fed ethanol. A strong third could be a launching pad to the nomination.
Fred Thompson. Needs third to keep going till the race turns toward friendlier turf in South Carolina. Falling to fourth is a blow, making it difficult to continue.
Ron Paul. Could sneak into double digits, enough to give him a real boost heading into New Hampshire, where he's waiting to spend some of his Internet-raised millions.
Rudy Giuliani. A third-place finish would be great for a guy who shunned the state and conceded that he can't compete in farmland. Falling below Paul could finish him off.
(David Lightman, Jim Morrill of The Charlotte Observer and Matt Stearns contributed to this article.)