Image: Obama and Clinton
Joe Raedle  /  Getty Images file
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., onstage before the start of a debate at the University of Miami on Sept.9.
updated 10/2/2007 12:12:26 PM ET 2007-10-02T16:12:26

I don’t usually make predictions, but here’s one: On Caucus Night in Iowa next January, Bill Clinton will be riding shotgun in a van, herding his wife’s supporters to caucus sites.

As Sen. Barack Obama doubles down on Iowa — he’s there all this week — and on the other “early” states of New Hampshire and South Carolina, the Clintons will shape-shift into heat-seeking missiles, aiming for quick-strike, pre-emptive wins that will end the nomination race almost as soon as it starts.

Can they pull it off? Inside the Beltway, the punditocracy obsesses about the national fundraising race, in which Hillary executed a shrewd maneuver by trumping Obama’s quarterly total ($19 million) with a much larger one of her own ($27 million, of which $22 million can be spent during the primaries).

But the crucial, little-understood numbers in the Democratic race are these: 30 (the astonishing number of staffed, paid organizing offices Obama has up and running in Iowa) and 17 (the astonishingly low percentage of New Hampshire voters who say they have “definitely” decided whom they will support in their primary).

The bottom line of 30 and 17: Obama has a shot at defying the Clintons in both places, no matter what the national generic horse race numbers seem to show at the moment.

First, Obama needs to build up a lead in Iowa to withstand the fusillades sure to come. He is showing a few signs that he can do so.

At the Democratic candidates’ Steak Fry in Indianola, Iowa, two weeks ago, I asked David Axelrod, Obama media chief, to assess the state of the campaign.

Didn’t his candidate need to crank up the volume against Hillary? He displayed a calm smile and said “no.” At that point, he said, Obama really hadn’t gone on TV to try to systematically sell his lions-and-lambs vision of a new kind of inclusive, thoughtful, generous-spirited politics.

“We really haven't systematically introduced Barack to the people here yet,” said Axelrod. “Let’s wait to see what happens once we go up with a new ad here,” he told me.

The ad is called “Believe” and it shows Obama, in a quiet, library-like office (with a leafy scene visible through a window) walking slowly and calmly toward the camera, speaking earnestly about the need for a new kind of politics.

After airing for 10 days, the results were evident. At least that’s how I read my magazine’s NEWSWEEK poll, which showed Obama leading Hillary and former Sen. John Edwards among likely caucus goers.

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Polling such people is notoriously difficult, and we are still about a hundred days away from the vote, but here’s the significant thing: During the entire time that Obama was on the air with the ad, Hillary was on the air, too, with ads about her sense of personal mission and about her health care plan. Often in a campaign, horse race numbers are twisted when one campaign has a “heavy buy” and the rival campaign is dark. That wasn’t the case here.

On the ground, as opposed to in the air, Obama has an impressive Iowa mix of cash money and grass-roots manpower. The question is whether all of those kids and paid staffers in those far-flung offices can lock up commitments from caucus-goers.

Video: ‘Obama is too weak’ Here, some other numbers come into play. Clinton strategists I talk to in Iowa, led by former Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack, estimate that perhaps some 125,000 voters will turn out for the caucuses. Obama’s organizers, led by campaign manager Paul Tewes, are hoping for a turnout as high as 200,000 — the higher the number, the higher the likely percentage of caucus=goers who support Obama.

In 2008, the calendar is going to make the connection between Iowa and New Hampshire that much tighter.

There used to be more than a week between the two; now there may be only three or four days. That means a victory in one is more likely to spark a victory in the other. And New Hampshire is an unlit fuse, according to a new poll by the University of New Hampshire. The poll is remarkable, Professor Andrew Smith told me, for its portrait of a state in which virtually no one has made up his or her mind.

While “definitely decided” numbers for early campaigns don’t exist, Smith said his sense was that they are far lower this year than in the past. (The GOP number — 13 percent — is even lower than among Democrats).

In New Hampshire, the most important pool of voters is the third of the total that are registered “undeclared” — the New Hampshire word for “independent.” On primary day, they are free to take EITHER party’s ballot. Smith estimates that two-thirds to three-quarters of them will take a Democratic ballot next January (though that depends, in part, on how well their old buddy Sen. John McCain is doing at the time). 

Those independent swing voters are precisely the ones who are most likely to respond to Obama’s call for an end to partisan bickering in Washington.  They aren’t partisans by nature. Ever wonder why Obama hesitates to get down and dirty with Hillary? That’s one reason: He still has to be “different” by January.

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