Harsh union attacks mar Dem caucus campaign

After a pause for Christmas, presidential contenders Wednesday resume their blitz across Iowa, scraping and scuffling in contests that have grown tighter and more unpredictable as the first balloting of 2008 nears.

And with the campaigning, expect a frenzy of hard-hitting advertising in Iowa by labor unions and other special interests. Federal election reports show that several groups not officially affiliated with the presidential contenders are ready to launch attack ads and mailers across the state.

Over the weekend, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) filed documents with the Federal Election Commission reporting that it will spend $40,755 on a mailing opposing Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. AFSCME is one of three major groups that have been active in Iowa promoting the candidacy of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

Two conservative groups also got into the act this week, announcing that they will be financing advertising campaigns in the week before the Jan. 3 caucuses.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side of the campaign trail,three candidates - Clinton, Obama and John Edwards - are running neck-and-neck-and-neck, with the rest of the field fighting to squeeze past one of them to finish third.

Among Republicans, former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts are battling for first place, while the race for third is a toss-up among several contenders.

The closeness of the caucus contests in Iowa increases the importance of these final days - and any verbal misstep, breakthrough TV ads or crystallizing moment on the campaign trail - in what already have been exceptionally fluid races.


Iowans will vote Jan. 3.

"We've never had anything like this," said David Nagle, a former congressman and past chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, who has been tracking the caucuses since they gained national attention in 1972.

"If you can find a three-headed coin, flip it. That's about the best projection I can give you."

While the approach of Christmas had kept the candidates on relatively good behavior - especially in their warm-and-fuzzy TV spots - few expected their reluctance to attack to last all the way into the new year.

With just eight full days of campaigning left, Christmas amounted to little more than an extended dinner break for many of the White House candidates and their harried staffers.

Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who has taken up temporary residence in Des Moines, had the state to himself and spent part of the day ice skating with his family and campaign team.

Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, will join former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and his wife, Christie, in the Vilsacks' hometown in the southeast part of the state, before the Clintons part ways to stump separately.


Another Democrat, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, begins his day in southwest Iowa, while Obama threads his way through the north.

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware plans a rally Wednesday in Des Moines.

On the Republican side, Huckabee plans to start his day with a pheasant hunt in southern Iowa, while Fred Thompson, former senator from Tennessee, resumes his bus tour a few towns over.

In all, eight candidates and two spouses will storm the state, according to the Iowa Democratic Party, which tracks campaign events by contenders from both parties. But that's just a start.

Between now and the caucuses, every one of the major presidential hopefuls will visit Iowa, including three - Sen. John McCain of Arizona; Rudy Giuliani, former New York mayor, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas - who up to now have spent little time in the state.

"As the race moves along, the Republicans are starting to see you really can't skip Iowa," said Chuck Laudner, executive director of the state GOP.


New Hampshire, which has been Iowa's twin at the front of the presidential nominating calendar for the past few decades, holds the nation's first primary Jan. 8.

Analysts believe a candidate has to finish somewhere in the top three in either Iowa or New Hampshire to be able to seriously compete in the contests that follow.

Edwards and Romney planned to campaign in New Hampshire on Wednesday before resuming a full schedule of Iowa events Thursday.

The onslaught in Iowa reflects its centrality to the presidential contest, despite the efforts of politicians in more populous places -- including Michigan, Florida and California - to cut the state down to size by moving their contests up to January and February.

All Iowa's detractors managed to do was to elevate the state's importance and add uncertainty by pushing the campaign into the heart of the holiday season.


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