Hillary's Iowa Challenge

Her lines are so polished and unvarying that reporters on Hillary Clinton's Iowa campaign bus have turned the anecdotes she inevitably weaves into every speech into a "Jeopardy"-style quiz (Q: What kind of business did the uninsured couple in Webster City have? A: An auto-body shop). Her audiences laugh as if on cue at her jabs at the Bush administration ("I don't know about you, but I was yelling at my television set"). The crowds are huge; the music is cheerful ("Taking Care of Business" and "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" are faves). As she pushes through 18-hour, six-city days, flanked by daughter Chelsea and mother Dorothy, Clinton is upbeat and confident. She popped aboard the press bus this morning to deliver coffee and bagels to reporters who have complained the candidate is inaccessible. "I don't know about you," she laughed. "But it's been fun for me."

To prove it, she squeezed in an appearance with David Letterman on Wednesday, the first show the comedian has taped since the writers' strike began. But beneath the smooth surface of a campaign now in its final hours, there is worry among Clinton's top advisers that a poor finish in Iowa could cause her once-commanding nationwide lead among Democrats to evaporate. A poll released New Year's Day by The Des Moines Register showed Barack Obama leading in Iowa by 32 percent, with Clinton and John Edwards virtually tied for second at 25 and 24 percent. While the Clinton campaign quickly found fault with the newspaper's sample (independent voters were overrepresented, they said), privately, Clinton's top advisers acknowledge that the criticisms leveled by other candidates in recent weeks--that Hillary's experience as First Lady doesn't qualify her to be president; that she has treated the nomination more as a coronation--have found their mark among Iowa's notoriously fickle voters. "Does it knock you off your game? Sure," says one adviser who didn't want to be quoted by name doubting Clinton's chances in Iowa. "This is going to be a fight."

Expectations for Clinton are impossibly high, and no one seems to know that more than Hillary herself. As she flies around the state--she attended rallies in five cities Wednesday--she takes nothing for granted. After promising to withdraw some troops from Iraq, overhaul the health-care system, make student loans more affordable and create an "Apollo program" for clean energy, she gets down to brass tacks, reminding her audiences to shovel their sidewalks and "dress warmly" and help less mobile neighbors to their Thursday-night caucus locations. She concludes every speech the same way: "If you will stand for me for one night, I will stand for you for the next four years." Her campaign has rented hundreds of cars and is even offering free baby-sitting to voters willing to attend the time-consuming ritual, which could take two hours on a weeknight. It has poured millions into advertising and unleashed a flood of volunteers to find Clinton caucusgoers.

But caucus logistics are vexing, even for the seasoned Clinton machine. At a college gym in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, 18-year-old Josh Perrin listened as a middle-aged volunteer, her sweater plastered with Hillary stickers, tried to persuade him to sign on with Clinton--and offered him a driver to get to a caucus location. The burly college student listened politely but couldn't seem to bring himself to tell her what he told me minutes later: he has to work Thursday night. If, by some chance, Perrin manages to get off his shift at the grocery store, he says he'd "most likely" vote for Obama. "But it's not set in stone."

Denny McDonald, a county government worker in Cedar Rapids, said he would be willing to vote for Clinton, but can't make it to a caucus location Thursday night. He has to take his son to hockey practice. Instead, his wife and mother-in-law say they will attend a caucus for the first time and vote for Hillary. According to Clinton's Iowa field director, Teresa Vilmain, some 60 percent of likely Clinton voters are first-timers, and no one knows for sure if they will actually show up.

That's what the campaign calls the "flake rate." And if Clinton is trounced in Iowa, expect the campaign to write off a wobbly start to the vagaries of Iowa as they charge on to New Hampshire--and to firmer, frozen ground. "No one knows how this thing is going to turn out," says Harold Ickes, one of Clinton's closest advisers, who has been pressed into duty driving elderly voters Thursday night. "It would be nice to win, but she doesn't have to win to go on." And in case anyone doubts whether Clinton can learn from adversity, she's only too happy to remind her audiences of her own trials during the battle over her health-care plan in 1994. "You often learn more about a person when they don't succeed than when they do," she says. "The Republicans have been after me for me for 16 years. Much to their dismay, I'm still here." One bad night in Iowa isn't likely to change that.