US candidates seek final edge in unpredictable race

IOWA FALLS, Iowa (AP) — The 2016 presidential candidates opened their final push Monday before primary voting begins, seeking any edge in a race brimming with unpredictability for both Democrats and Republicans.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, locked in an unexpectedly tight race, planned to deliver their final-stretch pitches Monday evening in a televised town hall forum, while President Barack Obama delivered his own blunt assessment of their contest. Obama praised Sanders for energizing liberals while saying that Clinton's perceived dominance in the race had been both an advantage and a burden.

Republicans who have spent months courting voters in Iowa, where the primary season begins, working to ensure their supporters make it to the caucuses next Monday. With insurgent candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz battling for victory in Iowa, the remaining Republican contenders are hoping that a better-than-expected performance can provide a momentum boost heading into New Hampshire, where the Feb. 9 primary will provide the best opportunity for an alternative to the front-runners to rise.

Adding a new flavor of uncertainty was word over the weekend that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is considering an independent bid, eyeing an opportunity if Trump and Sanders should end up as the Republican and Democratic nominees. Bloomberg's assessment of the race underscores concerns in both parties about whether they can win a general election with outside-the-box candidates like Sanders and Trump.

Obama, in an interview with Politico, praised Clinton as "wicked smart" but said she faced enormous expectations that had taught her to be more cautious. Carefully avoiding the appearance of favoritism in the race, Obama said Sanders had clearly tapped into many Democrats' hunger for a candidate who speaks bluntly and loudly about liberal values.

"You know, that has an appeal," Obama said. "And I understand that."

Sanders, who has been on an aggressive Iowa tour in the final days, returned his focus to his plan for government-run health care. Clinton has warned that Sanders' proposal risks jeopardizing the progress made with Obama's Affordable Care Act. But Sanders sought to give the issue a personal face Monday, turning the microphone over to supporters who told stories about poverty and struggling to afford medicine.

"You're ashamed all the time," said Carrie Aldrich, 46, who teared up as she told Sanders about living on less than $10,000 a year as she struggles with a disability. "When you can't buy presents for your children, it's really, really hard."

For Republicans, the close contest between Cruz and Trump for first place reflects a growing if grudging acceptance among party leaders that one of the two may be their nominee. Party leaders worry that having such a provocative candidate will alienate voters the Republicans need to win in November, potentially risking both the White House and other races.


Josh Lederman reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Lisa Lerer in Washington, Julie Pace and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Scott Bauer in Maquoketa, Iowa, and Kathleen Ronayne in Newmarket, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.