BOONE, Iowa (AP) — The sprint to the Iowa caucuses opened Monday with nearly a dozen presidential candidates in motion, a rather restrained Bill Clinton stepping up for his wife and a pledge by the only billionaire in the race to start spending serious money.
From Iowa to New Hampshire — on the air, on the bus and on the stump — candidates vying to become America's next president roared out of the holidays in full force with less than a month to go before voting begins.
The coming weeks are especially crucial for Republicans as voters look to weed through the thicket of choices to determine who will represent and attempt to reunite a bickering party. This, as contentious issues over terrorism, security, civil liberties and gun ownership reverberate, giving candidates plenty to argue about.
Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump have been the consistent favorites in polls overall. But they have very different strengths.
Clinton also has an impressive organization behind her while Trump's ability to pull off a winning ground game is in question and his frugal spending to date has stood in stark contrast to his vast personal wealth. He says he's opening the money spigot now.
Early voting is often deemed critical in races, like this one, when the path to a nomination is so unclear. As mystery shrouds the Republican race, the Democratic one hangs on whether Bernie Sanders, an independent socialist senator from Vermont, can turn his months of large, passionate rallies into enough votes to upset the former first lady.
In Iowa, the first of the early voting states, Republican contender Ted Cruz launched a bus tour through the state where his campaign feels he is well-positioned to win.
Cruz called on Iowa voters to bring nine of their friends and family members with them to vote for him in the Feb. 1 caucuses. Cruz made the plea Monday in the first of 28 planned stops in Iowa over the next six days.
"Now is the time that the men and women of Iowa step up and make your decision," Cruz said during his stop in Boone, Iowa.
Clinton also kicked off a two-day swing in Iowa, where she was scheduled to attend several organizing events in preparation for the caucuses.
In New Hampshire, former President Bill Clinton launched his own tour on behalf of his wife, talking both about Hillary Clinton's campaign promises and his own experience in the White House. What the scrappy political veteran did not talk about was Trump, who's baited him in recent days by bringing up his impeachment and decades-old sex scandal.
As Clinton mingled with a lunchtime crowd at a popular Manchester restaurant, news station above his head ran captioned video questioning whether he could avoid Trump's flagrant attacks. He did just that, focusing on the race at hand.
"They have to choose a nominee and we have a primary to win," he said when asked about Trump and the broader Republican field. "One of my many rules in politics is don't look past the next election."
The event marked the former president's debut solo appearance for his wife's campaign.
Sanders also campaigned Monday in New Hampshire, which votes Feb. 9.
In 2008, Hillary Clinton suffered a stringing defeat in Iowa, rebounded with a win in New Hampshire and waged a grinding campaign across the country before Barack Obama claimed victory in the nomination race on his way to the presidency.
Trump debuted his first television ad in both Iowa and New Hampshire, featuring dark images of the San Bernardino, California, shooters, body bags, and people apparently streaming freely across a border.
But the images of border security were of Morocco, not the U.S.
The Trump campaign insisted in a statement: "The use of this footage was intentional and selected to demonstrate the severe impact of an open border and the very real threat Americans face if we do not immediately build a wall and stop illegal immigration."
The ad reinforced remarks he made last month proposing a temporary ban on Muslims looking to enter the United States, which sparked outrage from Republican and Democratic rivals alike. The comments threatened the party's drive to attract minorities, an effort already complicated by Trump's negativity toward Mexican immigrants.
Trump says he plans to spend at least $2 million per week on television ads in Iowa and New Hampshire overall.
He was heading to Massachusetts late Monday before catching up to many of the other candidates flooding into New Hampshire this week.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's presidential campaign kicked off the new year by hiring several new people in New Hampshire, where his campaign is banking on a strong finish to propel his campaign forward.
Devon Manchester will serve as deputy political director in the state, campaign spokeswoman Samantha Smith said Monday.
The addition will boost Christie's paid staff in the state from four to six with just over a month to go before the primary.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, by contrast, currently has 20 full-time paid staffers in the state and plans to grow that number at least to 40 in coming weeks.
And Marco Rubio criticized his Republican rivals in a New Hampshire speech focused on national security. The Florida senator declined to call them out by name but said some would weaken the nation's military and intelligence programs designed to prevent terrorism.
"They talk tough," Rubio said in prepared remarks, "yet they would strip us of the ability to keep our people safe."
Salama reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in Newark, New Jersey; Lisa Lerer in Nashua, New Hampshire; Kathleen Ronayne in Salem, New Hampshire; and Steve Peoples in Washington contributed to this report.