Let the presidential picking begin


COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — In a final frenzy to inspire supporters to turn out for Monday’s Iowa caucuses, the presidential contenders scrambled to close the deal with the first voters to have a say in the 2016 race for the White House.

Even as the candidates begged backers to caucus, many hopefuls also tried to lower expectations and look ahead to New Hampshire’s Feb. 9 primary and later contests.

Republican Donald Trump, who has a slight edge over Ted Cruz in Iowa, predicted that “many” senators would “soon” endorse him rather than their Texas colleague. Trump didn’t name any such senators, and none immediately emerged.

Trump also continued his attacks on Cruz, while Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is running third, pitched himself as the pragmatic choice for Republicans who want to win in November.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, sought to claim financial momentum in the race for the Democratic nomination, saying his campaign has raised $20 million in January. That suggests he will continue to match front-runner Hillary Clinton’s vast resources.

One development — the weather — is beyond the candidates’ control. Snowfall forecast to start Monday night appears more likely to hinder the hopefuls in their rush out of Iowa than the voters.

Iowa offers only a small contingent of the delegates who will determine the nominees, but the game of expectations counts for far more than the electoral math in the state. Campaigns worked aggressively to set those expectations in their favor for Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond.

Several GOP candidates attended church services Sunday — in part, a testament to the influence that evangelical Christians wield in the Republican contest.

Trump attended mass in the non-denominational church First Christian Orchard Campus in Council Bluffs with his wife and two staffers. The billionaire took communion when it was passed, but initially he mistook the silver plates being circulated around the auditorium, and dug several bills out of his pocket.

“I thought it was for offering,” he said with a laugh to his staff.

Ted Cruz heard a Des Moines area minister urge politicians to treat their opponents with love and not attack ads. Pastor Mike Housholder of Lutheran Church of Hope even played two parody attack adds questioning the faith of church members.

The message didn’t stick.

At an afternoon rally in Council Bluffs, Trump again took aim at Cruz. He hammered the senator for a recent mailer that suggests to recipients that they have committed a “Voting Violation” by not being reliable caucus participants in the past.

“It is so dishonest. It is so dishonest,” Trump said.

The Iowa secretary of state has also criticized the Cruz mailer, which the candidate himself has described as “routine.”

Cruz directed much of his final advertising against Rubio as the senators’ feud intensifies at the Iowa finish line.

Cruz took to the airwaves to challenge the conservative credentials of Rubio, the Floridian running third in Iowa, according to the polls.

One ad said of Rubio: “Tax hikes. Amnesty. The Republican Obama.”

Rubio countered on CNN that Cruz is “always looking to take whatever position it takes to win votes or raise money.”

Later, campaigning in Cedar Falls, Rubio downplayed differences among the GOP hopefuls.

“It’s not just about who you like the most. It’s about who gives us the best chance of winning. That matters,” Rubio said at the University of Northern Iowa.

He did not mention his previous attacks on Cruz and Trump. Instead, he argued that “if in the end, policy differences are not enormous,” then the question should be “who gives us best chance?”

The candidates agreed on one thing: It’s all about turnout now.

The caucuses will start across the state at 7 p.m. CST Monday, with Democrats gathering at 1,100 locations and Republicans joining at nearly 900 spots. The length of each meeting can vary depending on turnout, with delays in voting possible if volunteers must struggle to record long lines of participants. The caucuses are run by the parties, not state or county elections officials.

Same night: The parties have held their caucuses on the same night for 40 years, but they operate differently.

For Republicans, it’s all pretty simple as party members gather, hear brief speeches for candidates and then fill out ballots. Those who want to stick around to conduct party business can do so, but many participants leave soon after voting.

Those votes are tabulated and reported to the party via a smartphone app, developed for both parties, and the data is made available to the media. Iowa’s 30 Republican delegates will be awarded proportionally, based on the statewide vote.

The Democrats take a more interactive approach, with voters forming groups and publicly declaring their support for a candidate. If the number of people in any group is fewer than 15 percent of the total, they can either choose not to participate or can join another viable candidate’s group. This means another candidate viewed as second-best by a non-viable candidate’s supporters could ultimately get a big boost as they regroup.

Those numbers are awarded proportionately, based on statewide and congressional district voting, as Iowa Democrats determine their 44 delegates to the national convention.

“If people come out to vote, I think you’re going to look at one of the biggest political upsets in the modern history of our country,” Sanders told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Clinton said she had been subjected to “years of scrutiny, and I’m still standing.” On ABC’s “This Week,” she said, “I feel vetted … and I think I’m the best person to be the nominee and to defeat whoever they nominate in November.”

Trump said “I don’t have to win” in Iowa, before adding that he believes he has “a good chance” of victory.

Cruz said on “Fox News Sunday” that he’s attracting “the old Reagan coalition” ranging from anti-establishment conservatives to working-class Democrats.

The last-minute scramble comes on the same day that campaigns will file campaign financial disclosures showing how much they’ve raised this month.

The Sanders campaign announced that it has raised more than $20 million this month. That means his pace is picking up. Earlier, his campaign said it raised $33 million over the last three months of 2015, compared to $37 million for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the same time period.

In the last major preference poll before the caucuses, Donald Trump had the support of 28 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers, with Ted Cruz at 23 percent and Marco Rubio at 15 percent. The Iowa Poll, pub-lished by The Des Moines Register and Bloomberg, also found Hillary Rodham Clinton with 45 percent support to Bernie Sanders’ 42 percent in the Democratic race. The poll was taken from Tuesday to Friday and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.