As the presidential race enters its final days, Iowa stands out as a question mark on the electoral map.
Strategists in both parties express confidence about winning the state and its six electoral votes, but few on either side are willing to guarantee a victory.
President Barack Obama won Iowa by almost 10 percentage points in 2008. But there is agreement here that the outcome is likely to be decided by just a few thousand votes, as it was in 2004, when President George W. Bush won the state, and 2000, when Al Gore won.
A new Wall Street Journal/NBC/Marist poll out Thursday showed Obama leading Mitt Romney by six points, but even Democrats admit that spread seems a bit optimistic.
That the Iowa race is coming down to a game of inches befits a state known for its intensely local brand of politics.
In Iowa, a state with just over 2 million registered voters, the little things still matter: small-town newspaper ads, person-to-person contact, radio spots that can be heard inside the cab of a John Deere.
In some ways, the Iowa race is a microcosm of the national one, a test of whether the fearsome Obama political operation can cobble together the votes to blunt a late-breaking spurt of enthusiasm for Romney heading into Election Day.
First lady Michelle Obama punctuated the tightness of the Iowa campaign on Monday at a campaign rally in Iowa City as she delivered a lengthy get-out-the-vote plea to about 800 denizens of the liberal college town.
Her husband's 140,000-vote margin of victory in 2008, she explained, was the equivalent of roughly 87 votes per precinct.
"So 87 votes," the first lady said. "That could mean just one vote on a block, just a couple votes in a neighborhood, just a single vote in an apartment building or a dorm room.
"So I want you to think about just a few more evenings on a phone bank, just a few more hours talking on doors," she urged the crowd. "You in this room alone can swing an entire precinct for Barack Obama. And if we win enough precincts we will win this state."
Mining crowds for votes and manpower
At the rally's conclusion, campaign volunteers marched a modest-sized group of audience members across the street to an early voting location inside the Iowa City Public Library, where they could register on the spot and cast their ballot.
The tactic of mining crowds for votes and manpower is an Obama campaign maneuver that dates back to the 2008 campaign, and staffers continue to use it to great effect.
A last-minute President Bill Clinton appearance in Council Bluffs on Wednesday drew 600 supporters, and the campaign promptly signed up 150 of them to work get-out-the-vote shifts on Election Day.
Campaign officials say their organizational presence around the state, with neighborhood teams embedded in tiny rural communities like Cresco (population 3,868) and Clarinda (population 5,572), gives them the power to hunt down low propensity voters in a way Romney's ad hoc field operation cannot.
As in other key states, the Romney campaign in Iowa is relying on the Republican National Committee to manage its get-out-the-vote program. Because of turmoil inside the libertarian-leaning Republican Party of Iowa, the RNC was forced to set up a "shadow party" to run its state-level field operations.
"All along we've believed having one-on-one conversations with voters will have an impact, because they do cut through the clutter," said Brad Anderson, the Obama campaign's state director in Iowa. "In the last couple weeks, the television airwaves are a mess, the mailboxes are full. It's these conversations that we have with voters in every part of the state, in rural Iowa, that the Romney campaign does not have the capacity to do."
Democrats in Des Moines also snickered at a Politico item this week that quoted a Romney official boasting that the "Branstad operation" -- that would be Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad -- would help propel them to victory.
Branstad's circle of advisers is well-regarded inside the Capitol building, and his approval rating is north of 50 percent, but the Republican governor does not have any kind of vaunted political machine at his disposal.
"This mythical operation can't even organize his own state party," cracked one senior Iowa Democrat. "Romney better have a plan B."
Democrats point to early voting advantage
Obama field organizers point to early voting returns as a clear sign of their political prowess.
Early voting started in Iowa on Sept. 27. So far, Democrats have banked more early votes than at this point in 2008. And through Tuesday, Democrats had cast roughly 60,000 more in-person and absentee ballots than Republicans.
That's the same margin Democrats had at this time four years ago. Even though Sen. John McCain defeated Obama among voters who cast ballots on Election Day, a third of Iowans had already voted by the time the polls opened -- and most of them had voted for Obama.
Republicans claim that Democrats need to rack up an even bigger early vote tally this year because Election Day voters and independents are likely to break for Romney in greater numbers than they did for McCain.
Like Democrats, Republicans are outperforming their 2008 early vote totals, and Romney officials in Boston and Washington point out that more Republicans have voted early this year than in 2004, when Bush had a famously mobilized conservative base behind him.
But Republicans in Iowa wave off squabbles about vote tallies and make a simpler argument: Organization is no match for enthusiasm, and the currents have been moving in Romney's direction for weeks.
Republicans working on other state races say their internal polling shows movement toward Romney that began after the first debate on October 3 and has climbed steadily ever since.
Kraig Paulsen, the Iowa House Republican leader, said Romney's poll numbers have perked up in almost every one of the competitive statehouse districts he is monitoring.
'I'm seeing Gov. Romney picking up speed'
"I'm seeing Gov. Romney picking up speed in these races I am watching," said Paulsen, who is presiding over the GOP effort to recapture control of the lower chamber. "The low point in my data was somewhere around the start of the month, but since then it's just been a solid trajectory coming up."
The turnaround in Romney's fortunes is eye-opening.
After sewing up the Republican nomination last spring following a trying primary battle, Romney was in dismal shape in Iowa.
Most surveys showed Obama maintaining a comfortable lead over his rival throughout the spring and summer.
By late summer and early fall, Republicans here were settling in for an all-but-certain defeat and looking to refocus their efforts on a slate of down-ballot campaigns, particularly the two competitive House races in Iowa's newly drawn third and fourth Congressional districts.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC/Marist poll released Sept. 20 painted a grim portrait for the Republican nominee.
Half of the state's likely voters had an unfavorable opinion of Romney, and more than a third of evangelicals viewed him negatively. He trailed Obama by 10 points among independents, and by a staggering 18-point margin among women.
The dynamic changed dramatically, as it did in every battleground state, after Romney's shining debate performance in Denver.
Bob Vander Plaats, one of the state's leading evangelical voices who has often feuded with Iowa's Republican establishment, said he finally cast an early vote for Romney sometime after the second presidential debate.
Vander Plaats, who sided with Rick Santorum in the Iowa caucuses, said it took several months for Romney and his campaign advisers to soothe conservative Christian anxieties about the candidate's convictions on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage.
Vander Plaats had a July conference call with three Romney officials in Boston to talk through some of his concerns.
"They said they were taking our issues seriously," he said.
Ryan selection helps with state's evangelicals
Romney's selection of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, a fervent abortion opponent, as his running mate helped stir support among evangelicals in the western part of the state and conservatives Catholics in the east.
The debate finally crystallized the choice for grassroots conservatives, who will show up without hesitation on Election Day, Vander Plaats said.
"There is no doubt that I wasn't the biggest Romney fan, but campaigns come down to choices, and I believe he is the much better choice in this campaign than Barack Obama," he said.
Republicans expect to lose the early vote but are planning to run up the score next Tuesday in the new fourth congressional district, where conservative icon Steve King has organized a dedicated network of volunteers in his race against Democrat Christie Vilsack.
Romney also hopes to cut into Obama's natural base of support in the working class counties and cities along the Mississippi River, where the president sailed to victory four years ago.
Yard signs are an imprecise way to measure enthusiasm, and some campaign operatives consider them a waste of money. But it is possible to make the drive from Des Moines to Dubuque, a 200-mile stretch of farmland along interstate 80 and highway 151 that was painted Obama-blue in the 2008 election, without seeing a single Obama sign or poster.
Romney signs, meanwhile, frequently dot the landscape.
In his two Republican caucus campaigns, Romney concentrated much of his efforts on these eastern counties, where pocketbook concerns often outweigh social issues.
The battle for those votes will come into full view on Saturday, when both Romney and Obama are set to campaign in Dubuque, a predominantly Catholic city perched on the banks of the Mississippi where an old reliance on manufacturing has given way to thriving health care and financial services sectors.
Obama clobbered McCain in Dubuque County in 2008, but like everywhere else in Iowa, the path to victory next Tuesday will be much narrower.