Voters enthusiastic in small state which could influence Presidency

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It was minus 12C in downtown Des Moines yesterday but Lori Young, who had nipped outside for a smoke was beaming. "It's going to be warmer on caucus night," she said between puffs, "and that's just great for Barack Obama with all his first-timers and young supporters".

Whatever the weather, Ms Young, who is African-American and works for a major financial organisation, will attend her first caucus tomorrow evening. As will her 73-year-old mother Helen. "Nothing will hold us back," she said.

They will make their way to separate voting centres in what is one of the most tightly fought battles for the Democratic and Republican nominations for the 2008 presidential elections. One poll puts Mr Obama ahead, but the caucus procedure is so unpredictable that the polls are pointing to a statistical dead heat with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

The epitome of what outsiders call "Iowa nice," Ms Young was keen to invite The Independent to shadow her and her mother at the caucuses. "I want to see Barack Obama in the White House and when I saw how he handled the attacks on his character by the Clinton campaign without any anger, I knew he had it in him to go all the way," she said. "What those attacks did is push more people into the Obama camp and they have been donating money $1 and $5 at a time proving that he is not in the grip of the special interests."

Earlier, some 2,000 people attended a rally at a high school, braving winds and snow flurries. "So I'm not worried about people not turning out to caucus," Ms Young said, "were all fired up."

On the other side of town, Mike Huckabee, the leading candidate on the Republican ticket, was making his way to the airport to fly to California for an appearance on the Jay Leno Show. He has run an unconventional campaign, and like Mr Obama among the Democrats, he has up-ended the Republican status quo.

At his last event in Iowa, he appeared on stage with a rock band and the ageing but preternaturally youthful Hollywood tough guy Chuck Norris. The maverick Mr Huckabee played "sweet home Alabama" on electric guitar and promised to bring god-fearing order back to the White House.

It was a strange mixture of down-home rockabilly evangelism in which he began by referring to the Book of Isaiah. To know who a person is "look for the rock from which he is hewn," Mr Huckabee said. He then launched into the story of how he had grown up in a tiny "rent house" with a father who had held down two jobs.

"I know where I come from," Mr Huckabee said, as he promised to do away with the internal revenue system and build up the military. "We will have a strong nation that will apologise to no one," he said.

Then it was the turn of the 68-year-old martial arts expert Chuck Norris to explain his support, as the second half of what was billed as the "Huck and Chuck show." Mr Norris stumbled across Mr Huckabee while reading internet blogs.

He quickly signed on to the campaign and helped to push him in to the lead in Iowa with an ad that made fun of the classic format in which Huckabee deadpans: "When Chuck Norris does a push-up he's not lifting himself up, he's pushing the earth down".