Thousands of Iowans are flocking to school gyms, living rooms, bars and public buildings as their state's presidential caucuses kick off a marathon Democratic showdown to find a candidate to do battle with President Donald Trump in November.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden are heading a field of 11 candidates in Iowa with Democratic voters desperate to find a magic formula to oust Trump after a single, turbulent White House term.
The first night of presidential balloting since Trump's shock White House triumph in November 2016 could spring its own surprises, and is too close to predict as many Iowans remained undecided until late in the race.
In a quirky exercise of in-person democracy, caucusgoers in 1,600 precincts will gather in groups to show support for their favored candidates at the beginning of the caucuses, which could last a couple of hours.
Supporters of White House hopefuls who don't meet a threshold of 15% in any given precinct have the chance to recommit to "viable" candidates or go home -- and will be beset by pleading friends, neighbors and business contacts backing other candidates to join them before officials create final tallies.
Delegates are awarded proportionally and Iowa accounts for 41 of the 1,991 pledged delegates needed to capture the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee in July.
Turnout will be closely watched on Monday night for clues about the morale of Democratic voters ahead of what is likely to be a fierce battle with Trump. The record to beat is the 240,000 caucusgoers who showed up in 2008, when Barack Obama made a huge first step toward the party nomination.
Iowa's notoriously frigid weather was kind on Monday and might boost attendance. Temperatures were forecast to hover around freezing in Des Moines when the caucuses open at 7 p.m. CT.
Caucuses to offer first clues about 2020 election
The caucuses across the Midwestern state will begin to answer the questions that will drive the Democratic race — including whether the party is about to take a sharp left turn or is poised for a more pragmatic choice of a moderate who might appeal to middle America.
Tuesday's voting could also expose the split between liberals promising sweeping political change like Sanders and his rival for the left's heart, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and the more incremental plans on issues like health care, the economy and college debt pushed by centrists like Biden, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Democratic voters could choose to put their faith in one of the 70-somethings in the race, like Biden, Warren and Sanders, or to make a break with a new generation represented by Buttigieg, who has historic potential as possibly America's first president who identifies as gay and has just turned 38 years old.
Huge night for Biden
The Iowa race will take center stage after being largely overshadowed by the raucous Trump presidency, and the impeachment drama that is just wrapping up in Washington and kept the senators running for the Democratic nod off the trail at the climax of the Hawkeye State campaign.
It will test whether Trump's attacks on Biden have harmed perceptions of his electability among Democratic voters. The impeachment drama embroiled the former vice president since Trump leaned on Ukraine to dig up dirt on a rival who has long been seen as the national Democratic front-runner.
The former Delaware senator has long styled himself, after a near half century in top level politics, as the best positioned Democrat to beat Trump -- and to restore what he says is the nation's fractured values and equilibrium.
But after never making it past Iowa in two failed presidential runs, Biden needs a strong showing on Monday night in a largely white state that does not set up for him as well as more diverse states like South Carolina and in the Super Tuesday races in early March.
Biden has predicted the Iowa race is a toss-up but also said he would make it until the end of the Democratic nominating tussle no matter what happens Monday.
"We're going to survive all the way through this whole thing," he told reporters in South Des Moines.
Sanders seeks to go one better than 2016
Sanders rushed back to the Hawkeye State on Monday night after attending closing arguments in the Trump impeachment trial in the Senate earlier in the day. After narrowly losing the caucuses in a near dead heat to Hillary Clinton four years ago, the Vermonter is banking on his fired-up supporters to push him over the line.
"It's not just our agenda, as strong and powerful as that agenda is -- it is grassroots movement," he said during a final day of rallies on Sunday.
A win from Sanders, given that he's also well positioned in next week's New Hampshire primary in a tight race with Warren would make a massive statement of intent and significantly hike the pressure on Biden.
It might also alarm centrist Democrats who fear their party is doomed to a certain defeat by Trump if it adopts a self-described democratic socialist as its standard bearer in November.
The Warren machine
Many Iowa veterans believe Warren built the best organizing network in the state, which could help her recapture momentum that faded after a spurt over the summer. The Massachusetts senator has positioned herself between Sanders and the moderate crop of candidates, promising an overhaul of an economy that she says is weighted toward the wealthy.
Four years after Clinton fell just short of shattering the highest glass ceiling and failed to become the first female president, Warren is also shouldering the hopes of many Democratic women.
"Right now across America in competitive races, women are outperforming men. So here's how I see this -- our No. 1 job is to beat Donald Trump. Women win," Warren said at her final Iowa town hall.
Buttigieg, a veteran of the Navy Reserve who deployed to Afghanistan, is presenting himself as the pragmatic alternative to Biden and subtly arguing that the former vice president's time has come and gone.
He's not doing much to play down expectations, acknowledging that it is vital for him to make a strong stand in his first tilt at national politics.
"I'm going to let other people do the math on the numbers and the percentages, but let's face it, we need a very strong finish here in Iowa, because this is our chance to show versus tell," Buttigieg told reporters Sunday.
'We left it all on the field'
Another candidate who may not survive a disappointing performance in Iowa is Klobuchar, who has tried to parlay folksy Midwestern moderation into a spot in the top tier of the Democratic nominating race.
"We've left it all on the field," an aide to the senator told CNN's Kyung Lah on Monday, adding, "I think we'll surprise people."
Other candidates taking a first run in the national presidential spotlight include entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who has wooed many young voters, and businessman Tom Steyer, who has spent tens of millions of dollars of his own cash to try to force himself into the race to take on Trump.
Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has splashed $300 million on his own run, is sitting out the first four races and hoping for an opening further down the road.