DES MOINES, Iowa Iowans kicked off the first of the 2016 U.S. presidential nominating contests on Monday in caucus votes that could bolster or complicate the presidential hopes of the front-runners, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Opinion polls showed Trump, a blunt-speaking billionaire businessman who has never held public office, with a small lead over his closest rival Ted Cruz, a conservative U.S. senator from Texas.
Clinton, a former secretary of state, had a slight edge over insurgent Bernie Sanders, a self-styled democratic socialist U.S. senator from Vermont.
A large bloc of undecided voters in both parties in Iowa may hold the key to victory, and turnout efforts will be critical. Many supporters of Trump and Sanders are new to the process and disenchanted with traditional politics.
A Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Iowa poll on Saturday showed three in 10 likely Democratic caucus-goers and 45 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers were still uncertain.
Iowans begin choosing candidates at 7 p.m. CST (0100 GMT on Tuesday), with results expected within a few hours. The contest is the first of the state-by-state party battles to pick nominees for the Nov. 8 election to succeed President Barack Obama.
A win for Trump could validate an aggressive campaign that has alarmed the Republican establishment, dwarfed the efforts of many seasoned politicians and been marked by controversies such as his calls for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States and for a wall along the Mexican border.
Candidates took to social media to encourage their supporters to turn out or contribute funds.
“We can and we will get back to the founding principles that made America great,” tweeted Cruz (@tedcruz) with the hashtag #CaucusForCruz.
Clinton’s Twitter account (@HillaryClinton) tweeted a code for cell phone owners to receive text message alerts once results arrived.
Trump began the day with a rally in Waterloo, Iowa, saying his lead in opinion polls would not matter if people stayed home. At a later rally in Cedar Rapids, he said his security had warned him there might be protesters with tomatoes, and he responded in typically pugnacious fashion.
“If you see someone in the crowd getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them,” he told the crowd.
The Iowa caucuses are the first of the state-by-state contests that lead to the parties' formal presidential nominating conventions in July. The Iowa voter gatherings are a long and sometimes arcane ritual, taking place in 1,100 schools, churches and other public locations across the Midwestern state.
For the winners in Iowa, the prize will be valuable momentum that could stretch for months, while many of the losers on the Republican side could quickly begin dropping by the wayside.
The 2016 election is shaping up to be the year of angry voters as disgruntled Americans worry about issues such as immigration, terrorism, income inequality and healthcare, fuelling the campaigns of Trump, Sanders and Cruz.
On the Republican side, opinion polls show foreign policy hawk Marco Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida, might win third place in Iowa and stake a claim as the best hope for the party's mainstream.
For the Democrats, Clinton needs a win in Iowa to prevent a potential two-state opening losing streak that would raise fresh questions about a candidate who was considered the clear front-runner just two months ago. Sanders is leading in polls in New Hampshire, the next state to hold a nominating contest.
Clinton began her day at her campaign’s south Des Moines field office, where she served roughly 60 volunteers donuts and coffee. An extensive ground operation, much like Obama's as a candidate, has been cited as one of her advantages.
A former U.S. senator and first lady, Clinton often touts her years of experience in politics, and says she will defend much of Obama's legacy. Sanders has attacked from the left and promised to do more than Clinton to help American workers.
Clinton, who lost Iowa in 2008 and went on to lose a protracted primary battle to Obama, told ABC's "Good Morning America" programme that it would be different this time, adding, "I think I'm a better candidate."
(Roporting by Steve Holland, John Whitesides, Amanda Becker and Ginger Gibson in Iowa; additional reporting by Amy Tennery; Writing by Alistair Bell and Jeff Mason; Editing by Frances Kerry and Howard Goller)
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