in Des Moines - Connie Stewart showed up at the Des Moines First Assembly of God with her mind made up. With just 48 hours to go before the caucuses, the Faith, Family, and Freedom rally was a chance for the presidential candidates to woo religious conservatives one last time. Mrs. Stewart was among the 1,500 or so who spent the evening doing a sort of evangelical "wave" as the candidates denounced abortion and homosexuality with all the righteous indignation they could muster. Listen, stand, clap, sit, listen, repeat. Like a Baptist who wandered into a Catholic mass, the scores of press representatives on hand seemed genuinely baffled by this political liturgy. But despite the 20 or so television cameras recording the event for audiences as far away as Japan, this was an evening for those in the know. The religious right is a force to be reckoned with in Iowa, and every candidate on this cold Saturday night had essentially the same message: I'm one of you. They delivered the message with varying degrees of conviction and rhetorical flourish, but the faithful never missed an applause line. Faced with five avowedly pro-life Republicans, religious voters in Iowa complained of the embarrassment of riches. That's why so many turned out on this cold Saturday night for one last look at some of the contestants: They were hoping for a sign. But not Connie Stewart. Her mind was made up. The 58-year-old retiree has children in Texas, so she's kept abreast of George W. Bush's policies. She's heard him speak at five different campaign events, shared a story with Laura Bush about her special-needs grandson who lives in Dallas, and gotten a number of Bush autographs. Her house sports a Bush campaign sign. She's committed to her candidate. Until she hears Steve Forbes. "He's not a politician," she muses at the end of the seemingly endless rally. "Sometimes I think we should run this country more like a business. I've been very strongly for Gov. Bush, but there's something about Forbes. I liked what he had to say. Now I just don't know what I'm going to do." Welcome to Iowa. It's people like Mrs. Stewart who have consistently bedeviled presidential frontrunners and pollsters alike. In this small, well-educated, overwhelmingly Caucasian state, voters like to keep their options open. They take a second look at candidates-and preferably a third and fourth look, too. They enjoy a level of personal contact with the candidates that would be unthinkable in larger states with later primaries. And when they get that one last look in a candidate's eyes-when they hear that one final speech-anything can happen. And often does. Late polls showed both Gov. Bush and Vice President Gore far ahead, but neither frontrunner was taking anything for granted with Iowa's notoriously fickle voters. They criss-crossed the state in chartered aircraft, while lesser candidates trolled for votes aboard customized buses. With strong support from labor unions-traditionally a major political force in Iowa-Mr. Gore looked poised to drive the first nail into Bill Bradley's coffin. Indeed, at a brief photo-op outside the Des Moines airport, the Gore team virtually crackled with energy. Press aides with walkie-talkies handed out hot-off-the-press schedules of the veep's upcoming campaign stops. Photographers braved zero-degree wind chill and jostled for position outside the wannabe Air Force One, where Mr. Gore was scheduled to speak. And three maroon minivans hurried back and forth from airplane to terminal-tires squealing-even though the guest of honor had already announced he'd be at least 20 minutes late. The Bradley campaign, by contrast, looked tired. Dogged by questions about his health and final polls showing him falling ever farther behind the vice president, Mr. Bradley started sounding like a loser in his final speeches. On Sunday, he promised supporters he'd go the distance, even if he lost in both Iowa and New Hampshire, two states that were once touted as the cornerstones of his insurgent candidacy. His final days of campaigning were confined largely to student groups-an audience guaranteed to be noisy and enthusiastic, no matter what the message. On the Republican side, everything shaped up for a strong win by George W. Bush. That the Texas governor would place first was never seriously in doubt, but Iowa has historically been a stumbling block to frontrunners. He spent his final day urging followers not to succumb to overconfidence, knowing that a close second-place finish by Mr. Forbes could be interpreted as a chink in his own armor. The Forbes camp, by contrast, was spinning like crazy, trying to convince political analysts that anything less than a Bush blow-out should be viewed as a win for their man. Four days before the caucus, Forbes 2000 issued a 21-word press release in a clear attempt to raise the bar of expectations for their opponent: "Jim Boehmer, a Bush caucus captain in Iowa, said Bush will win the Iowa caucuses by 25 or 30 percentage points." Gov. Bush and Mr. Forbes poured millions into Iowa. With the stakes so high, passions ran high as well. Charges of negative campaigning flew in every direction. In Ames, for instance, Bush operatives accused the Forbes campaign of late-night phone calls to Bush supporters, giving them incorrect locations for their local precinct caucus. The Forbes campaign flatly rejected the charges, but the flap highlighted the arcane-even bizarre-nature of the caucus system. Some 4,200 caucuses are conducted across the state in locations ranging from church auditoriums to private living rooms. Finding the right caucus is crucial, because voters who attend the wrong precinct meeting are ineligible to vote. The meetings begin at 7 p.m. sharp, and people who find that inconvenient-those who work nights, for instance-don't get to vote. As even the people who live here will admit, the system can be hard to fathom. That's certainly true for Matt Beaulieu, a senior accounting major at Iowa State University in Ames. He is visibly nervous as he walks into his first-ever caucus, held in the gym of his former elementary school. As a man in blue suspenders explains the evening's agenda-elect a permanent secretary, elect a permanent chair, two-minute nomination speeches for each candidate, and so forth-Mr. Beaulieu shakes his head. "I had no idea about all this," he whispers. Like most Iowans who bother to turn out for the caucuses-and only about one in 10 registered voters makes the effort-Mr. Beaulieu is serious about his responsibilities to democracy. Earlier in the day he skipped class to attend a speech by Mr. Bush, and just the night before, he drove 40 miles to hear Alan Keyes. He gave the Democrats a chance, too, when he attended a Gore event, but he considers himself a conservative Christian, and the vice president failed to inspire him. At 7:15 p.m. he sits slumped in a folding chair, watching the proceedings as they unfold. He's missing a church league basketball game for this. As a first-time voter, his name wasn't on the rolls, so he registered on the spot as a Republican in Ames Ward 1, Precinct 5. He says "aye" on cue several times as people he doesn't know are nominated for obscure party posts. A white envelope is passed around for collecting donations. He passes it on without adding to the kitty. Then, at 7:23, the real game begins, and he sits straighter in his chair. Steve Forbes gets the first nominating speech. A man in a tight tan T-shirt and blue Forbes hat stands to say that he appreciates the fact that Mr. Forbes is a "non-politician." Mr. Beaulieu smirks. Several people in the gym guffaw loudly. "A non-politician in the traditional sense," the man amends. Then his two minutes are up and he sits down. Next, a distinguished-looking gray-haired man rises to endorse George Bush. He points out that the Texas governor is the most electable of the candidates. He's followed by a woman who stands to read prepared remarks on behalf of Gary Bauer. "She goes to my church," Mr. Beaulieu whispers. "I wish I'd gotten to hear Bauer." There's a pregnant pause. No one makes a move to speak on behalf of Messrs. Hatch, Keyes, or McCain. With that, the endorsement speeches end and the voting begins. The man in the blue suspenders hands out blue slips of paper with six names. The papers are marked, folded in half, and passed back to the aisles. Mr. Beaulieu makes his Republican debut by voting for Alan Keyes. "I voted from my heart," he explains as the votes are tabulated at the front of the room. "I looked him in the eye, and what I saw in Mr. Keyes was a very compassionate, loving person. I saw that he wasn't afraid to stand up for his issues. He said what he believed even though it most likely cost him votes. It impressed me that he wasn't afraid to make his position known, make his values known. You could see it in his eyes; he really believed what he was saying." In 10 minutes the count is over, and the results are written on a green chalkboard. Out of 159 votes cast, Mr. Bush places first with 84, followed by Mr. Forbes with 32, Mr. McCain with 17, Mr. Bauer with 11, Mr. Keyes with 10, and Mr. Hatch with 5. Mr. Beaulieu shakes his head as he reaches for his coat. "Ten votes," he says. "I was one in 10." He says he'll vote for Bush in the general election, but he can't believe Mr. Keyes got only 10 votes. "I guess they just didn't get to hear him," he concludes. As for Mrs. Stewart, 50 miles away in Urbandale, on Sunday she settled her crisis of conscience in favor of Mr. Bush after recording the Sunday morning news shows and pouring over the papers. "I got caught up in the emotion of [Saturday] night," she explains, recalling the rally at First Assembly of God. "But I really believe Bush is more electable. Others in the party will see Forbes as just too rigid." She believes the governor's statement of faith, and she trusts him to do the right thing on the "very important" issue of abortion. Besides, there was the whole flap about Mr. Bush's ears: In an issue that had all of Iowa talking, a Forbes ad had appeared a few days earlier, featuring an unflattering photo of his opponent. Bush supporters complained that the photo had been doctored to enlarge Mr. Bush's ears. Mr. Forbes denied it, but Mrs. Stewart wasn't completely convinced. Negative campaigning by Republicans in 1996 had helped to reelect President Clinton, she believed, and she didn't want to see that happen again this year. And so, after thousands of hours and tens of millions of dollars, it came down to this: Bush by an ear, Keyes by an eye. Multiplied thousands of times over in caucuses across the state, those were the kinds of intangibles that pollsters and pundits could never predict.