Call it a brave
new world in Iowa presidential politics.
The races for
both the Republican and Democratic nominations here are
toss-ups as voting approaches, a double dose of fluidity
unseen in decades. At the same time, the effect of
winning -- or losing -- the leadoff Iowa caucuses in
2008 is anyone's guess.
christen the nominees and give them steam to run the table
of rapid-fire primaries? Or will the state set the
stage for upsets in next-up New Hampshire five days
Regardless of the
answer, dogfights on both sides are certain in the five
weeks until Iowans caucus.
A poll released
Sunday by The Des Moines Register shows both races
in dead heats.
With a 4.4
percentage point margin of error, Mike Huckabee had 29% to
Mitt Romney's 24% and Rudy Giuliani's 13%. Among Democrats,
Barack Obama got 28%, while Hillary Rodham Clinton had
25%, and John Edwards had 23%. Other candidates were
in single digits. More than half of likely
caucus-goers in both races say they could change their
minds. A chunk are undecided.
Press-Pew poll being released this week echoes the
competitive situations in Iowa.
''We haven't had
wide-open races on both sides for some time. This is
absolutely unprecedented,'' said David Redlawsk, a
University of Iowa political scientist. ''And the
impact of Iowa is unknown because the environment
we're in is different.''
For one, the
primary calendar is packed tight. The Iowa caucuses are
January 3, and New Hampshire votes January 8. Several other
states quickly follow, culminating in what amounts to
a de facto national primary February 5 when two dozen
states hold contests. That could make it difficult for
anyone knocked off in Iowa to generate momentum needed
for a comeback.
24-hour news cycle has intensified, with cable channels,
talk radio, the Internet, blogs -- and mainstream political
media Web sites -- playing major minute-by-minute
roles in the campaign. That could provide Iowa losers
with a giant megaphone through which to attack the
front-runner or fix their own missteps.
Also, a slew of
Republicans and Democrats are running and poised to split
the votes in a multitude of ways in Iowa and elsewhere.
Candidates may be able to hang in far longer than in
past years given that there's so much money being
poured into the campaigns; it now can be collected quickly,
as GOP long-shot Ron Paul proved with a one-day $4.5 million
unknowns that could further scramble the contests include
the behavior of late-deciders, the impact of outside
groups, the candidates' potential unforced or forced
errors, and the negative ads expected in the coming
All that adds up
to unpredictability -- nationally and in Iowa.
On the Republican
side, Romney spent nearly $5 million on TV ads, built a
superior state campaign, and held 396 events in Iowa only to
watch his months-long lead evaporate as Huckabee -- an
underdog and a onetime Southern Baptist minister --
surged by consolidating the support of influential
message of faith, family, and freedom is resonating
with the American people. They know it's authentic,''
Huckabee said in a statement Sunday, jabbing the
former Massachusetts governor, who has battled charges
of changing positions for political gain.
But the former
Arkansas governor dramatically trails Romney in money and,
perhaps more importantly, organization. With limited
resources, the future of Huckabee's bid relies on an
Iowa win -- and the momentum and money that could come
If beat in Iowa,
Romney still would be able to compete in New Hampshire,
where he leads in polls and has a strong campaign. But a
loss would severely set him back.
On Friday, he
said he's not surprised the Iowa race tightened. ''People
have a lot of people to chose from, and as they get to know
folks and find things they like about different
candidates, that's what you'd expect,'' Romney said.
He is stepping up
his criticism of Huckabee on taxes and immigration. His
surrogates also now are arguing to social conservatives that
Huckabee doesn't have the money and manpower needed to
beat Giuliani, an abortion-rights backer, in contests
In the Democratic
race, Clinton, the leader in national and most other
state polls, is fighting to keep her aura of inevitability
in tact and prevent Obama or Edwards from crippling it
with an Iowa victory. Despite the former first lady's
celebrity, Clinton has struggled to break out of the
pack here. Edwards is well known to Iowans from his 2004
race, while other Democrats have warmed to Obama's
Second choices in
the caucuses count; Democratic rules allow backers of
second-tier candidates to switch to another contender after
the first round of caucusing. Undecided voters are a
wild card, and Democratic operatives estimate that
roughly half of the electorate hasn't chosen whom to
As the polls have
tightened, Obama has faced more intense criticism.
the Illinois senator on Sunday for a political action
committee he controls that has contributed money to elected
officials in early voting states. Asked by reporters
if Obama's character was in question, Clinton said in
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, ''I'm going to let voters make
that decision, but it's beginning to look a lot like that.''
In Des Moines,
Obama brushed off the spike in criticism. ''I think that
folks from some of the other campaigns are reading the polls
and starting to get stressed and issuing a whole range
of outlandish accusations,'' he said.
The stakes are
higher for Obama and Edwards than Clinton in Iowa.
If she loses
Iowa, the New York senator can rely on her financial and
organizational muscle. She's trying to build a firewall in
New Hampshire to protect her from an Iowa loss; Obama
and Edwards have much less organization there. But the
momentum from either of them winning in Iowa could
dramatically upend the race. Conversely, a clear win in Iowa
for Clinton could cement her front-runner status and
make her difficult to beat. (Liz Sidoti, AP)