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Presidential hopefuls criss-cross Iowa as first vote looms

Published 31/01/2016

Republican front-runner Donald Trump surrounded by supporters at Dubuque Regional Airport, Iowa (AP)
Republican front-runner Donald Trump surrounded by supporters at Dubuque Regional Airport, Iowa (AP)

Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls have toured the length and breadth of Iowa in a frenzied weekend prelude before voters have their first say in the 2016 US presidential race.

The Midwestern state offers only a small contingent of the delegates who will determine the nominees at each party's national convention in July. But Monday's caucuses will provide a test of whether the large enthusiastic crowds turning out at rallies for property mogul Donald Trump and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders will turn into actual votes.

The caucuses should also help winnow out the crowded Republican field and provide momentum heading into the February 9 New Hampshire primary.

In the last major preference poll before the caucuses, Mr Trump had the support of 28% of likely caucus-goers, with Texas senator Ted Cruz at 23% and Florida senator Marco Rubio at 15%.

The Iowa Poll, published by The Des Moines Register and Bloomberg, also found Democrat front-runner Hillary Clinton with 45% support and rival Bernie Sanders with 42%. The poll of likely 602 Republican and 602 likely Democratic caucus-goers was taken from Tuesday to Friday.

Mr Trump, the showman of the Republican race, made a dramatic entrance to a Dubuque rally as his jet flew low over a hangar half-filled by the waiting crowd and music played from the movie Air Force One. There was more drama inside, as a small group of protesters interrupted him and Mr Trump joined the crowd in chanting "USA" to drown out the discord.

Mr Cruz directed much of his fire at Mr Rubio, sharply challenging his rival's conservative credentials on the airwaves. One ad said darkly of Mr Rubio: "Tax hikes. Amnesty. The Republican Obama."

"The desperation kicks in," Mr Rubio said in response to Mr Cruz. "From my experience, when people start attacking you it's because you're doing something right."

Seeking to lower expectations, Rubio senior strategist Todd Harris said the goal in Iowa was to "finish a strong third".

Mr Rubio is hoping to emerge as the favourite within the establishment wing of the party heading into New Hampshire, where he is trying to fend off challenges from former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Ohio governor John Kasich.

With the Democratic contest a likely toss-up, Mr Sanders told a Manchester rally that the outcome depended on how many Iowans invested the time and energy to make it to caucus sites. The caucuses are held at schools, churches and even private homes.

"It's virtually tied," he said. "We will win the caucus on Monday night if there is a large voter turnout. We will lose the caucus on Monday night if there is a low voter turnout."

The Vermont senator and self-described democratic socialist said "the eyes of America, in fact much of the world" would be on Iowa and the state could be a model for the future of American democracy.

Mrs Clinton has worked assiduously to avoid a repeat of 2008, when then-Illinois senator Barack Obama scored a surprise win in Iowa. She finished third in the caucuses and her days as the prohibitive favourite for the nomination faded.

She faced the prospect of escalating political heat from revelations on Friday that the private email server she used when she was Mr Obama's first secretary of state contained top-secret messages that should have remained within proper, secured channels.

That heat was coming from Republicans. Mr Sanders earlier declared the email flap a non-issue in his mind, but it has still raised questions among voters about Mrs Clinton's honesty and integrity.

But Mr Sanders has raised the issue of the large speaking fees and campaign donations that Mrs Clinton has received from leading financial firms and other corporations.

Mrs Clinton emphasised the issue of gun regulations at a rally at Iowa State University in Ames, where she was joined by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was severely wounded in a mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly.

The former secretary of state drew an implicit contrast between her push for stricter laws with Mr Sanders' mixed record on gun control measures.

"How can we continue to ignore the toll that this is taking on our children and our country?" she said. "When you go to caucus Monday night, please think of this."

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