PRIMGHAR, Iowa (AP) - If Hillary Rodham Clinton wins Iowa's presidential caucuses, it won't be because of endorsements or poll numbers. It will be because of people like Carol McCarty, who lives in the state's heavily Republican northwest corner but plans to attend her local caucus and stand up for Clinton.
"Hillary's been through the mill," McCarty, who calls herself a retired homemaker, said at a recent Clinton campaign meeting at a Pizza Ranch restaurant here. "She took a lot of abuse as first lady, and hopefully she knows how to handle it. She's very strong, she's very smart and I'm glad she's a woman."
In Iowa, it's all about getting people to the caucuses on a cold night this winter. Currently, the caucuses are scheduled to take place Jan. 14, but the date is likely to move up as other states jockey to push their nominating contests forward as well.
Identifying supporters like McCarty - and persuading them to show up at the caucuses to choose delegates for each candidate - is the central challenge facing Clinton and her rivals in this important early voting state. Democratic candidates have mounted vast organizational efforts across Iowa, deploying hundreds of staff and volunteers to feed, court and cajole finicky caucus-goers months before a vote is cast.
"Our organizers sit down with supporters, go to their homes, go to coffee with them and give them several ways to become involved," said Angelique Pirozzi, who runs Clinton's Iowa field program. "It's fundamentally a program of relationships."
Democratic rivals John Edwards and Barack Obama have also mounted strong operations in Iowa, and polls show a tight race here even as Clinton maintains a lead in national polls.
Much has changed here for Clinton since May, when a memo surfaced from her deputy campaign manager urging her to skip Iowa - "our consistently weakest state," in the memo's words.
Since then, the campaign has redoubled its efforts in the state, opening 19 field offices and hiring more than 100 staffers. Supporters are being recruited to chair each of the state's 99 counties and 1,784 precincts. Clinton has stepped up her visits, and the campaign recently began running its first television commercials.
Identifying supporters and persuading them to caucus for a candidate remains a slow and meticulous process for all the campaigns. Democratic campaigns also focus much of their efforts in rural Republican-leaning counties, where even a handful of supporters showing up on caucus night can yield delegates for a candidate.
In Primghar, just nine voters showed up for what was billed as the Clinton campaign's O'Brien County kickoff meeting. The group was treated to pizza and presentations by local field organizer Rebecca Slutzky and by Rep. Jay Inslee, who flew to Iowa from his home state of Washington.
"I'm here because Iowa's the most important place to be. The rest of the world watches and waits to see who Iowa picks," Slutzky, a Virginia native, told the group. "If you're undecided and you want to hear more, we'll set up a meeting. I'll sit in your living room as long as it takes."
To make their pitch, Slutzky and Inslee carefully went through talking points. Attendees listened and asked questions, but by the end most remained uncommitted. Only McCarty promised to attend the caucuses for Clinton.
"This has made my whole trip worthwhile!" Inslee said, asking McCarty if she'd be willing to call her friends and talk up Clinton's candidacy.
"I'll speak personally to people. I'm not a great phone person," McCarty replied.
It's equally slow going for Clinton's rivals in Iowa.
Edwards, who placed a close second to John Kerry in the 2004 caucuses, has staked his candidacy on winning Iowa this time. He and his wife, Elizabeth, completed a five-day bus tour of the state last week, making stops in 31 communities. The campaign has opened 15 field offices and is running an extensive outreach program to the state's many rural areas.
Edwards' Iowa spokesman, Dan Leistikow, spoke of the importance of "old-fashioned Iowa campaigning" - including canvassing, phone banks and organizational meetings - to identify supporters. The campaign has mailed out thousands of DVDs to Iowa Democrats outlining Edwards' proposed health care plan and has run commercials touting his opposition to the Iraq war.
Leistikow said the campaign relies on visits from Edwards himself to make the strongest case.
"We're giving people the chance to see him in small communities, town halls and house parties to let them see he's the candidate who's got the most substantive answers and the strongest ideas for change," Leistikow said. "We always sign up a lot of people after they see him."
Obama has perhaps the largest field operation in Iowa, with 29 offices across the state and more scheduled to open soon. But Steve Hildebrand, Obama's top field organizer, acknowledged that the Illinois senator remains "the new kid on the block."
"A lot of Iowa voters still don't know much about Barack, and we are going up against the woman who has tried to portray herself as the eventual nominee. We have a big job ahead of us," Hildebrand said.
To that end, the campaign has run television commercials outlining Obama's biography and has mailed a biographical DVD to thousands of past caucus-goers. It is also relying on extensive phone banking and one-on-one meetings. Volunteers and staff are all on hand to make the pitch to voters, and surrogates like campaign manager David Plouffe and media adviser David Axelrod have flown in to help out.
Obama finished a five-day bus tour of the state last week during which he met with voters in a variety of small and medium-size settings. He's stepped up those appearances in part to address grumbles from Iowa activists early in the campaign that he was favoring large rallies over more intimate gatherings Iowa caucus-goers have come to expect.
As for Obama's much-touted effort to bring new and younger people into the political process, Hildebrand said the effort was full speed ahead in Iowa - a tall order, since just 10 percent of Democratic caucus-goers in 2004 were under 35.
"We have a very motivated base of supporters - young people, others - and we're not going to have any difficulty getting to them to show up on the most important day in the election," Hildebrand said.
He said the campaign expected to see a number of Republicans and independents show up on caucus night, in order to re-register as Democrats to support Obama.
Among the other candidates, Bill Richardson has mounted an aggressive push in Iowa in recent weeks and has 13 offices in the state.