As the race for the 2008 presidential elections gains momentum, the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses are right around the corner. They can make or break candidates for the Democratic and Republican Party nominations.

In the most recent poll taken by the Des Moines Register, Sen. Barack Obama leads Democrats with 28 percent in Iowa. Sen. Hillary Clinton has 25 percent, and John Edwards has 23 percent. Mike Huckabee leads Republicans with 29 percent. Mitt Romney has 24 percent, and Rudy Giuliani has 13 percent.

Voters and activists in Iowa say there are many issues that will determine how caucus goers cast their votes.

Virgene Martin is a fourth generation family farmer of crops, cattle and hogs on 1,500 acres of land in Bridgewater, Iowa, 63 miles southwest of Des Moines. She said major hog-farm corporations are trying to build their “factory farms” in her hometown, causing a major concern for her and other family farmers. “They’re just in it for the money and running family farms out of business,” she said.

Martin is also concerned about the stench and possible airborne diseases that such hog factories can produce.

At a recent presidential forum held in Iowa, Martin asked John Edwards what he would do for family farmers against big corporations. Edwards favors a federal moratorium on the expansion of corporate hog-farm factories, she said.

Martin said she is going to support either Edwards or Obama. “It’s going to be a hard decision,” she said. She added, “It’s important voters get involved now and investigate who is funding the candidates, especially if it’s big corporations.”

“Don’t wait until a disaster comes to your county — it’s important to participate and be active in your community,” she said. Martin expects the Iowa caucuses to have one of the biggest turnouts in years.

Erica Palmer is a community organizer with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. She works for the Latinos in Action chapter based in Marshalltown, a community of about 26,000 people that is 20 percent Latino, of whom a large majority are immigrant families.

Palmer said Marshalltown was put on the map a year ago when immigration officials raided a local meatpacking plant and arrested over 90 workers. The following week, officials also raided many homes.

“The No. 1 issue is immigration reform,” said Palmer. “After the raids, the fear took over within the immigrant community such as going to work, going to school, or even going shopping.”

Palmer said the current immigration system is inadequate and needs to be fixed. She added that immigrant workers deserve a pathway to citizenship and that the raids and the resulting separation of family members, along with anti-immigrant town ordinances, are not the solution. Addressing national security after 9/11 is important, but targeting immigrants doesn’t make any sense, she said.

“Immigrants bring new life to our communities, and we’re sending the wrong message that we don’t want them here,” said Palmer.

Lois Crilly, who is unemployed, is active in the fight for universal health care in central Iowa. “Its time has come,” she said. “There is so much pressure now from voters.”

Crilly said more and more health care programs are underfunded, causing workers who want to retire early to hold back from doing so because they can’t afford to pay health insurance premiums, deductibles or co-payments. “More and more of the burden in paying for health care is going to the people who have the least ability to pay for it,” she said.

Crilly said Medicare is another big issue in Iowa. “Medicare is a runaway for fraud and abuse by health care providers,” she said. Crilly believes the average Medicare recipient now pays more for prescription drugs than for doctor visits.

Another important issue is environmental safety, including clean water and air, according to Dawn Jorgensen, a Des Moines teacher. Jorgensen hopes the next president can implement changes needed to stiffen laws on air pollution in Iowa.

Environmental protection is an issue for everyone, said Jorgensen. “Right now, some of the issues being passed in Congress only benefit corporate profits and not the environment,” she said.

“The upcoming elections will affect everybody,” Jorgensen said. “However, it would be nice to continue to get all the attention we’re getting now in Iowa after the caucuses are over.”