WASHINGTON -- After a day off for Christmas celebrations, US presidential contenders hit the campaign trail full tilt Wednesday, just days before voters in key states begin to narrow the field of White House hopefuls.
Top contenders could afford no more than a two-day holiday before resuming their fervent courtship of voters in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, whose early nominating contests give them an outsized role in choosing each party's candidate for the national vote in November.
Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, locked in a pitched battle for the Democratic nod, were to begin tours of Iowa, which kicks off the party selection process on January 3.
Under existing rules, Democratic candidates who receive less than 15 percent of the vote in Iowa are considered nonviable, and their backers have the choice of either going home or casting their ballots for their second choice.
That is why the three leading Democratic candidates -- Obama, Clinton and former senator John Edwards -- have been courting the supporters of candidates who may not receive 15 percent -- most likely New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Senators Joe Biden of Delaware and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, and Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.
On Sunday, Obama picked up the endorsement of The Sioux City Journal, an Iowa newspaper, which described him as a Democratic candidate "who best understands this critical moment in our nation's history."
The Des Moines Register, the main newspaper in the state, has endorsed Clinton among the Democratic candidates.
Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate now running third, elected to knock on doors in Nashua, New Hampshire, handing out donuts and chatting up voters, his campaign said. New Hampshire holds its bellwether primaries on January 8.
Republican Senator John McCain meanwhile was to hit the schools, civic clubs and coffee shops of Iowa in the days just after Christmas, while breakout Republican contender Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor, was scheduled for fundraising in Florida.
Huckabee has come from nowhere in the polls to take a lead in Iowa over former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and even threaten Rudy Giuliani's status as national frontrunner for the Republicans.
The Giuliani campaign has taken the high-risk strategy of largely bypassing Iowa and New Hampshire to focus on Florida, which votes on January 29, and then other big states such as California and New York on February 5.
But with his national poll lead slipping, the former New York mayor was to join the rest of the field in Iowa after Christmas, promising to go all out after a brief hospital stay last week for "flu-like symptoms."
"The Republicans are starting to see you really can't skip Iowa," Chuck Laudner, who head the state's Republican party, told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday.
The Iowa caucuses are coming earlier than ever in this year's compressed electoral calendar, followed by the New Hampshire primaries on January 8 and other states through to "Super Duper Tuesday" in February when a cluster of states hold primaries simultaneously.
The early contests tend to give states where they are held a disproportionate role in the selection process, and often bring surprises, sometimes knocking a perceived frontrunner off the field.
"Losing both New Hampshire and Iowa can destroy a candidacy. Winning both is almost a sure path to the nomination," Paul Finkelman, a professor at Albany Law School, wrote in an Internet commentary earlier this month.
The Democratic and Republican presidential candidates will be formally nominated at their respective party conventions in late August and early September, but the nominee is generally known long before then.
This year's race has the potential of sweeping the first American woman to the White House if Clinton wins, or the first African-American if Obama triumphs.
A poll published December 20 in USA Today found Clinton and Obama locked in a dead heat on 32 percent in New Hampshire. And in the Republican race for the state, Romney had seen his lead over McCain narrow to single digits.
But USA Today said the main finding of its latest poll in New Hampshire was uncertainty, with more than four of 10 voters in each party saying they may change their minds before the primary election.
"That fluidity could magnify the impact of late-breaking news, last-minute gaffes and the Iowa caucuses that will open the presidential season five days earlier," it said.
Copyright 2007 AFP