|After weeks of running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton, Obama has|
opened a slight lead on his main rival on the eve of the Iowa caucus [AFP]
Americans in the state of Iowa have begun choosing their candidates to vie for the presidency this year.
Democrat and Republican candidates were in the state hoping to secure the support of political activists as the long race to be the next president of the United States got under way on Thursday.
After months of furious political campaigning, the 16 candidates will plunge into the state-by-state battle to choose two presidential candidates from the 16 currently in the race for the two parties' nominations.
The Democratic caucus began at 6:30pm (0030 GMT), with Republicans starting 30 minutes later. Results could begin to appear within an hour or two.An opinion poll released on Thursday showed Barack Obama leading John Edwards in the Democratic contest, with Hillary Clinton a surprising third.
In the Republican race, Mike Huckabee had expanded his lead on rival Mitt Romney.
The candidate that comes out on top, or even perform better than expected, in Iowa will gain valuable momentum, improved media exposure and increased campaign contributions.
The losers could find themselves severely wounded heading into the next contest in New Hampshire on Tuesday.
Clinton falls to third
The final Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby tracking poll before the caucus gave Obama 31 per cent, a four-point lead over Edwards with 27 per cent. Clinton had fallen to third place at 24 per cent.
In the final hours before the caucuses on Thursday night, the candidates bought time on local television to drive home their message and encourage maximum voter turnout.
"After all the town meetings, the pie and coffee, it all comes down to this: Who is ready to be president and ready to start solving the big challenges we face on Day One," Clinton, a New York senator, said in a two-minute message on local television channels.
Obama, the Illinois senator who would be the first black in the White House, said in his message: "I will carry your voices to the White House and I will fight for you every day I'm there."
For his part, Edwards used a factory worker who had lost his job in Newton, Iowa, to make the case he was the candidate who could battle corporate interests and secure US manufacturing jobs.
Edwards, the 2004 vice-presidential candidate, has made his promise to fight special interests the centrepiece of his campaign.
He ended a 36-hour marathon bus trip across the state on Wednesday night in Des Moines.
Record turnout is expected for the Democrats, surpassing the 124,000 Iowans who participated in 2004. Republicans are also likely to surpass their record of 87,000 caucus participants in 2000.
However, caucus night requires Iowans to leave their homes and join their neighbours at a community gathering spot to publicly declare their support for a candidate and sub-freezing temperatures could put some people off voting.
|Huckabee has opened up a lead on Romney|
despite spending less than his rival [AFP]
Campaign supporters were ready with snow shovels if needed, and used the telephone and Facebook online to encourage voters to turn out.
Huckabee, the leader in the opinion polls for the Republican party, has steadily improved his position since a second-place finish in an Iowa straw poll in August. The former Arkansas governor leads Romney by 31 per cent to 25 per cent.
He took a brief break from Iowa to fly to California and appear on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno, playing bass with the house band and crossing a picket line to appear on the show but expressing support for the striking screenwriters.
"People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with rather than the guy that laid them off," Huckabee said when Leno asked about his rapid rise.
Romney vastly outspent his Republican rivals, only to see his longtime lead in the polls slip away.
However, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who is leading the field in the national polls, has largely ignored Iowa and is pinning his hopes on the flood of contests after New Hampshire.