The starting gun for the 2008 race to the White House will be fired in a week's time when neighbours begin gathering in town halls and schools across Iowa for the process of nominating presidential candidates.
It is a process that leaves the rest of America mystified and not a little jealous while handing the small state of Iowa unrivalled influence over the final selection of the country's president.
Any registered Democrat or Republican can be a party activist on the night and attend a caucus. The candidates have been working themselves to the bone trying to enthuse people to show up. The process is fiendishly complicated. Caucus-goers elect delegates to county conventions, who, in turn, elect delegates to district and state conventions where national convention delegates are selected. Whatever the outcome, next Thursday's meetings of local party leaders and activists is a crucial first step in America's complicated process of choosing a president.
The polls only tell part of the story. They show the three top Democrats, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the populist John Edwards tied in a dead heat. Under the Democrats' rules, candidates need at least 15 per cent of the vote at a local caucus to be considered "viable". Should the votes fall short, a furious round of horse trading ensues as caucus-goers hand their votes to another candidate.
That is where it could all go south for Mrs Clinton. While she may have fought Mr Obama and Mr Edwards to a tie with tightly run campaign, there are doubts about how well she is liked by activists of other campaigns. It is these second- preference votes that can produce a runaway winner from a very close field.
For the Republicans, all the signs are that the dark horse Christian conservative Mike Huckabee will win the caucus. With a bare-bones word of mouth campaign, he has swept into a five-point lead over Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, a Mormon. Behind the scenes a fascinating grudge match is going on in Iowa between two great religious rivals Mr Huckabee's church, the Southern Baptists, and the Mormons. There is not a lot of love lost between the two churches which proselytise heavily in each others heartlands, with the Baptists describing the Mormons America's fourth-largest religion as cult members.
A defeat for Mr Romney in Iowa will be very damaging and up-end the multimillionaire's strategy of doing well in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, thereby creating enough momentum to defeat Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York. Mr Giuliani, who has been leading in the national polls, has barely shown up in Iowa where his tolerance for gays, his three marriages and interest in gun control put him at a serious disadvantage. He hopes that whatever happens in Iowa he will pick up steam in more socially liberal delegate-heavy states such as Florida and California which nonetheless warm to his hawk-like foreign policy views.
Iowa's position at the starting line of the presidential steeplechase causes much rending of garments in rival states. It is small, rural and generally unrepresentative of modern America. Its caucus system is not particularly democratic, with only one in 29 Iowans bothering to go out to vote in temperatures that are generally below zero. But along with New Hampshire, the state with the first primary, Iowa is a bellwether of US presidential politics.
Only in Iowa and New Hampshire do politicians have to engage in months of face to face "retail" politics with voters. The result seen in the Republican and Democratic contests is that an outsider has the opportunity to overwhelm a candidate who is dominating nationally. This year it could be the place where Mrs Clinton and Mr Romney come to grief.
The billionaire founder of Bloomberg LP, who spent $74m of his own money in 2001 to become Mayor of New York and $85m more in 2005 to keep it. His politics are a blend of socially liberal and dyed in the wool capitalist.
Born: 14 February 1942
Latest poll: About a third of voters would pick independent candidate
Born in the US to a Mexican mother and raised partly in Mexico. He is America's self-appointed ambassador at large, negotiating with Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong il and the Taliban.
Born: 15 November 1947
Supporters: Hispanic Americans
Latest Iowa poll average: 6.4 per cent
"America's Mayor", much admired for his leadership after the 11 September attacks. Giuliani supports gay rights and gun control and is twice divorced, but nonetheless appeals to Republicans because of his stance on terrorism.
Born: 28 May 1944
Supporters: Pat Robertson
Latest Iowa poll average: 8.7 per cent
Strongest Democratic candidate although now trailing Barack Obama in Iowa and is locked in a dead heat among New Hampshire voters. She has huge appeal, especially among women, but is also greatly disliked, especially by Republicans.
Born: 26 October 1947
Supporters: Bill Clinton, Barbra Streisand, women
Latest Iowa poll average: 29.2 per cent
A Christian conservative who is funny, endearing and self-deprecating, he is the dark horse of the campaign moving rapidly up the field. But he has little money and no organisation.
Born: 24 August 1955
Supporters: Evangelicals and gun aficionados
Latest Iowa poll average: 29.2 per cent
He was born in Hawaii, with a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas. He has huge appeal among young college-age voters who reject status quo politics.
Born: 4 August 1961
Supporters: Oprah Winfrey, young voters, black voters
Latest Iowa poll average: 27.3 per cent
Born in 1953 to a mill worker's family, Edwards has targeted poverty as an issue. He focused his rage at big corporate interests in Washington. A brilliant trial lawyer he has fought class action lawsuits against big corporations.
Born: 10 June 1953
Supporters: Trade union movement, singer Bonnie Raitt
Latest Iowa poll average: 23.5 per cent
A torture victim (he was shot down over North Vietnam) he abhors the CIA policy of waterboarding, but supports the war in Iraq. His father and grandfather were admirals.
Born: 29 August 1936
Supporters: General David Petraeus, the military
Latest Iowa poll average: 10.2 per cent
A "top tier" candidate he has already spent an estimated $100m promoting his campaign. A wealthy venturecapitalist and former governor of Massachusetts, much attention has been given to Romney's Mormon faith. To head off suspicions, he said he would not as president be beholden to the church. His campaign theme is, "The skills you develop in business, they're desperately needed in government".
Born: 12 March 1947
Supporters: Wall Street, corporate America
Latest Iowa poll average: 25.5 per centReuse content