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Candidates swarm Iowa on final day before caucuses

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Donald Trump.

Candidates are blitzing Iowa on a frenetic last full day of campaigning before the first-in-the-nation state casts its verdict on a wild presidential race.

Donald Trump stands on the verge of a potentially stunning victory in the state — and tempers are flaring in the final hours. The real estate mogul on Sunday branded his top GOP rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a “liar,” while Cruz questioned his opponent’s record on abortion and religious liberty. Trump also made an 11th-hour assault on Cruz’s power base of evangelical voters by appearing with Jerry Falwell Jr.

Democrat Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, clung to an inside-the-margin-of-error advantage over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as she battles to bottle up the self-described democratic socialist before he becomes a genuine threat to capture the nomination.

With Iowans well known for making up their minds in the final days before the caucuses, or even in the meetings themselves, candidates hussled between more than 25 formal events Sunday and saturated television talk shows.

Trump was in Council Bluffs, where he ratcheted up his attacks on Cruz. The Texas senator, meanwhile, was in Iowa City, where Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson made a forceful case that Cruz could restore the U.S. To biblical principles and called same-sex marriage “wicked” and “evil.”

In Waterloo, Sanders hailed his fundraising haul while in Council Bluffs, Clinton hailed the grassroots organization that she hopes will carry her in tomorrow’s caucuses.

They are firing their last shots in the wake of the final Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll on Saturday night, which has often been an effective barometer of how the race eventually shakes out.

Trump led Cruz 28% to 23% with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in third at 15% in a race that may rest on whether the billionaire reality star can entice his army of anti-establishment voters to turn out on Monday night and swamp Cruz’s more conventional conservative coalition.

Clinton, hitting her stride on the stump in recent days, leads Sanders 45% to 42%, and faces a similar turnout equation: If Sanders can convince a new generation of young voters to show up, he has a good chance to upset the national front-runner.

Several hundred thousand people are expected to trek to caucus meetings in schools, churches, restaurants and even fire houses in 1,681 Iowa precincts on Monday evening, honoring their cherished duty of kicking off a nominating process that could stretch into late spring.

The caucuses will not decide the nomination — there are only a tiny fraction of the required delegates at stake — but they are likely to winnow down the GOP field and set expectations for the bigger state primaries that lie ahead.

First test for Trump

The caucuses are crucial for Trump because they will be the first test of whether he can turn anger he has whipped up against GOP elites into votes in an unconventional campaign built on his ubiquitous media profile. Or will Trump’s tirades against Muslims, Mexicans and his rivals turn off voters keen to select a nominee who can beat a Democrat in the fall and is qualified to serve as commander in chief?

Driving home his advantage Sunday, Trump laid into Cruz, taking exception to claims by the Texas senator that he would save President Barack Obama’s signature health care law if he made it to the White House.

“Look, Ted Cruz is a total liar. I am so against Obamacare. I’ve been saying it for two years in my speeches, I’m going to repeal and replace Obamacare,” Trump said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I don’t even know where he gets this.”

Trump, hoping to influence religious voters who play a key role in Iowa, went to church with his wife Melania on Sunday. The billionaire swayed in time to the hymns at First Christian Church in Council Bluffs, western Iowa, and took communion.

And seeking to peel away any wavering evangelicals from Cruz, he also linked up with Falwell, a hero of the Christian right, who endorsed him despite deep skepticism among some believers about the depth of Trump’s faith.

Cruz has challenges above and below

Cruz is under intense pressure to deliver a victory on Monday night since Iowa is a state perhaps most receptive to his appeal to the most ideological conservatives and evangelicals. A defeat would cast doubt on his wider appeal in the delegate-rich southern states he hopes could pave the way to the nomination.

With that in mind, Cruz on Sunday drew a firm contrast between his ideology and that of Trump.

“I do think policy differences are fair game,” Cruz told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”

“He and I have very, very different views on questions like life and marriage and religious liberty. He and I have very, very different views and records on questions like health care and Obamacare and amnesty.”

Making his closing argument to voters in Iowa City where he campaigned with conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck and Robertson of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” Cruz urged voters to ignore the media surrounding the presidential race and get out to caucus on Monday night. Evidence of his ground game was in full effect outside where volunteers spread out at long tables collecting information from voters willing to caucus tomorrow.

He sought to differentiate himself from Trump by telling voters that if they were looking for someone who could “maybe make some deals, I ain’t your guy.”

Honing his argument that he is the true conservative in the race, he also implied that a vote for Trump was a risk.

“This is your time to make the decision for the men and women of Iowa to say we can’t get fooled again,” he said to a crowd of several hundred people who crammed into one of the exhibition halls at the state fairgrounds in Iowa City. “The stakes are too high. We can’t roll the dice.”

Cruz also drew fire from his other flank, as Rubio seeks at least a good third-place finish to make the case that he is a stronger alternative to Cruz and Trump than ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

“This whole notion Ted has that he’s the only conservative, I think as people learn more about his record, they’ll realize what he really (is) is very calculating,” Rubio told “State of the Union.”

“He’s always looking to take whatever position it takes to win votes or raise money, and we’re not going to beat Hillary Clinton with someone that will say or do anything to get elected,” Rubio said.

Clinton faces email questions

Clinton on Sunday geared up for an anxious wait to see whether the turnout machine she built while learning lessons of her 2008 caucus defeat to Barack Obama will counter the wave of increasing enthusiasm for Sanders.

But she was dogged by questions about the private email server she used while secretary of state, which is under investigation by the FBI to see whether any classified information was illegally compromised.

“It was not the best choice,” Clinton said, admitting on “This Week” that using a government email account would have spared her political pain.

“I wouldn’t be here talking to you about it,” she said. “I’d be talking about what people in Iowa are talking to me about, about affordable health care and jobs and rising wages and all of the concerns that are on their minds.”

Still, inside Clinton’s campaign, there was quiet optimism that her get-out-the-vote effort would yield victory on Monday night.

“We’ve had an amazing grass-roots organizing effort,” Clinton told CNN on Saturday. “I’m so proud of all the people who have put it together and the, literally, tens of thousands of volunteers that they’ve enlisted.”

The Clinton campaign has 4,200 precinct captains and other precinct leaders prepared for Monday night. By Sunday, according to aides, campaign volunteers will have knocked on 125,000 doors this weekend alone.

Former President Bill Clinton, meanwhile, took aim at politicians who he implied did little more than voice the frustration of voters. It appeared to be a jab at Sanders, who has inspired legions of rank-and-file Democrats with his broadsides against Wall Street and an economy he says is skewed toward the wealthy.

“When you’re angry and frustrated, the typical thing to do — and it’s so emotionally satisfying for about 30 seconds — is to label and blame, label and blame, label and blame,” Clinton told a historic black congregation in Des Moines.

“This church was not built on label and blame,” he said. “This church was built on people taking responsibility.”

But like the Clinton campaign, Sanders also touted his Iowa organization, saying on “State of the Union” that he would have 15,000 volunteers knocking on doors in Iowa and making phone calls on his behalf.

The Vermont senator stuck to his vow not to use the email issue against Clinton but did accuse her campaign of turning negative against him.

“I can’t keep up with what the Clinton campaign does, to be honest with you,” Sanders said on “State of the Union.”

“All I know is, we are bringing out large numbers of people,” he said. “We’re creating a lot of excitement and energy on the part of people who really are tired of establishment politics and establishment economics.”

CNN’s Dan Merica, Maeve Reston and Jodi Enda contributed to this report

By Stephen Collinson