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Candidates Rally Voters in Iowa Caucus Countdown

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

As the caucuses approach, there is increased focus on the nuts and bolts of making sure people actually turn out. The weather could have an impact. It'll be cold. No surprise there.

Also worth noting is that a large percentage of people who tell pollsters they will be caucusing have never participated in the Iowa caucus before, so it's not clear how many of them will actually show up.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports from Des Moines.

DON GONYEA: Presidential candidates have been working Iowa voters since last winter, but now with caucus day upon us, and with races on both Democratic and Republican sides very tight, it all comes down to getting committed supporters to live up to that commitment. Candidates are out making last-minute speeches, their job is to keep enthusiasm up among their backers. But even more critical at this late-stage is the work of campaign organizations.

Gentry Collins runs Republican Mitt Romney's Iowa operations.

Mr. GENTRY COLLINS (Iowa State Campaign Director for Mitt Romney): We're going to door-to-door to as many of them as we can get to, although in 15-degree weather that's hard to do. And we are making certain that they know where to go, making sure that they remember that the caucuses happen at a time certain, that you can't just go vote all day long, that you have to show up at seven o'clock and vote, and frankly, doing anything else that we can think of to turn our supporters out.

GONYEA: Collins says they're also attracting special cases, people who will need help getting to the caucus. He cited one woman with a broken hip who supports Romney, who will be just one of many people being chauffeured tomorrow night.

In downtown Des Moines at Mike Huckabee headquarters, they're doing the same things, though on a lower budget. Upstairs, about 50 volunteers, from senior citizens to high schoolers, are making thousands of last-minute phone calls.

PAUL(ph) (Volunteer): How are you doing? I'm Paul. I'm a volunteer for the Mike Huckabee campaign. I'm calling to remind you about the caucus tomorrow evening. Oh, great.

GONYEA: Eric Woolson is Huckabee's Iowa campaign manager.

Mr. ERIC WOOLSON (Iowa Campaign Manager for Mike Huckabee): Two hours ago, we had a phone call, a gentleman said that he was sight impaired and was there something that we could do, and we said, you know, what's your precinct, what's your address, we'll get somebody there to get you to your precinct to caucus and back.

GONYEA: Huckabee has used enthusiasm among Iowa Republicans particularly evangelicals to build a small lead over Mitt Romney in the polls in the state over the past two weeks. Now, the Huckabee campaign is hoping that such enthusiasm can help offset the big money and organizational advantages that Mitt Romney has. The big final push is playing out in Republican and Democrat campaign offices across the state.

But phone banks and door-knocking are old-school techniques. The most organized campaigns, and those with the most money, are also extremely tech-savvy, reaching out to Iowans through text messages, through Internet networking sites such as Facebook, through e-mails. Babysitting services are being offered to families. Casseroles are even being dropped off, so busy moms can go caucus.

Campaigns are also mindful of the fact that because this is a caucus, there can be confusion even about where to go. Again, Gentry Collins of the Romney campaign.

Mr. COLLINS: Even for people who vote all the time, vote very regularly, their regular voting location and their precinct caucus location are two separate places. And so, just simple things like making certain that our supporters know where to go actually turn out to be quite important.

GONYEA: Also underway today are efforts by the statewide Republican and Democratic Party organizations here to make sure that caucuses simply come off without any problems, and they are braced for a potentially huge increase in turnout.

Carrie Giddins of the Iowa Democratic Party notes that in 2004, roughly 120,000 Democrats participated. This year?

Ms. CARRIE GIDDINS (Communications Director, Iowa Democratic Party): The Iowa Democratic Party is prepared for up to 200,000 caucus-goers, and if we have to, even more.

GONYEA: Giddins says that's not a prediction, but simply something they have to be ready for, given the intense spotlight on Iowa tomorrow night.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.