The 2012 US presidential campaign begins in earnest today when Republicans in the predominantly rural state of Iowa vote to decide who they want to represent them in November's election.
This year's Republican field is among the the most chaotic on record. Polls show there have been six front-runners since August.
The initial favourite, the Tea Party's Michele Bachmann, is now trailing in last position among the six candidates. Herman Cain, another early front-runner, is no longer in the race, having been forced out by allegations of sexual harassment.
Mitt Romney, beaten by John McCain for the Republican nomination in 2008, goes into tomorrow's ballot as favourite. A weekend poll by the Des Moines Register gives him 24 per cent of the first-choice vote, ahead of the right-wing Ron Paul on 22 per cent and Christian conservative Rick Santorum on 15 per cent.
The remaining three candidates - Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, as well as Ms Bachmann - may be forced to reconsider their presidential ambitions if they poll badly on 3 January. Rick Perry, in particular, has run an undistinguished campaign, in one candidates' debate forgetting the name of a government department he said he was campaigning to abolish.
'First in the nation'
Caucuses - or community meetings - will be held at gymnasiums and churches tomorrow to select Iowa's GOP ("grand old party") candidate. Since 1972 the Midwestern state, with a population of just over 3 million, has been the first in the union to cast its vote.
And although Iowa has a mixed record for predicting eventual winners or losers, its "first in the nation" status means many presidential candidates spend a disproportionate time in the state in the belief that a good showing can give their campaign a strong initial impetus.
"Iowa has this history of being a surprising place," says Iowa pollster Ann Selzer, "giving some people a boost who nobody thought had a chance and putting people to rest who people at one point thought were inevitable winners."
But critics say the predominantly white and sparsely populated "Hawkeye State" is unrepresentative of the United States as a whole. In 2008 only 17 per cent of registered voters showed up for Democratic and Republican caucuses.
What is more, Republican caucuses are dominated by conservative activists, as a result of which Iowa has historically chosen politicians who are more socially to the right. In 2008 they chose Southern Baptist minister Mick Huckabee as their preferred presidential candidate.