MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa - With eight days to go until the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee brought out the big guns. But only Huckabee shot anything.
Clinton's weapon of choice was her husband, the former president, who in a packed high school auditorium here echoed the refrain all the candidates have been furiously embracing, saying his wife was a proven agent of change. "Hillary has an unbroken record of making decisions that have had a positive change in other people's lives," Bill Clinton told the crowd of 500 people.
Meanwhile, Republican front-runner Huckabee took veiled jabs at his chief rival, Mitt Romney, while bringing reporters along on a pheasant hunt on a snowy, windswept Iowa plain. A regular hunter, Huckabee then shot a pheasant. "Don't get in my way," the former Arkansas governor joked. "This is what happens."
Clinton's deployment of her husband, along with their daughter Chelsea and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, revealed how high the stakes have become as the candidates hurtle toward the finish line Jan. 3. Recent polls have shown the New York Democrat losing ground to Sen. Barack Obama and John Edwards.
Whether it was the pressure of the race or the folksy, fiery introduction from the former president, Clinton seemed particularly energized. "The Republicans have thrown everything they could at me for the last 16 years," Clinton said to a large ovation. "It drives them crazy I'm still here. So you don't have to worry about me waging a winning campaign."
As Clinton began her final push for victory, Obama, who some polls now have as leading the pack, toured northern Iowa. At a stop in Webster City, Obama reflected on when he announced his presidential bid in February on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill.
"My bet was that if we presented a campaign of change, then the American people would respond," Obama said. "Here we are 10 months later, and we are on the verge of winning Iowa."
But Obama said he expects other campaigns will try to plant "seeds of doubt" about his candidacy in the coming days.
"Vote your hopes," he said. "Don't vote your fears."
In reciting what he called his "closing case," Obama suggested that he is the most capable of beating a Republican in the general election.
"If you are serious about change, then you can't look to the same folks doing the same things and expect something different," he said.
That, of course, was a shot across Clinton's bow, as the former first lady in her speech yesterday mentioned the word change throughout. "I think it takes strength and experience to make change in our political system," she said. "We can't wait. We don't have any time to waste."
But Clinton, as she did at her event in Iowa Sunday, avoided going negative on her competitors. Instead, she focused largely on domestic issues such as affordable health care. At one point, she asked people in the crowd to raise their hands if they lacked health insurance. Several hands went up.
Then she asked those who had insurance but had had a coverage dispute with their insurer to raise their hands. More went up. And she earned her biggest ovation when she said, "It's time we regulated the health-insurance companies."
On the Republican side, Huckabee remains locked in a tight struggle with Romney. He brought reporters out to a frozen field outside of Osceola to discuss his campaign and, as a subtext, illustrate his support for gun rights. (A local official of the National Rifle Association accompanied him on the hunt.)
Huckabee, wearing full hunting regalia complete with an orange-accented jacket and cap, appeared more than ready for the cold conditions. He also had a Benelli Black Eagle 12-gauge camouflage shotgun in hand. "I'm just talking about taking care of business," Huckabee announced, before locking and loading.