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It's aliiiiive! Campaign beast awakens in Iowa

With less than eight weeks until the voting begins in the Iowa presidential caucuses, it suddenly feels like somebody has flipped a switch. Howard Fineman explains.
Clinton 2008 Energy
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks about energy and environmental issues Monday at Clipper Windpower in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.Brian Ray / AP
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Word on the street is that there’s a lot of trash talking going on right now on the phone banks in Iowa.

Sen. Barack Obama is gearing-up a bus tour, Sen. Hillary Clinton is on the air with a new ad aimed at older women, Bill Clinton is headed to the western part of the state to woo country folk, and John Edwards is taking aim at the former first lady declaring the need for “real honesty and real answers — not more double talk.”

Finally! A campaign!

For much of 2007, the presidential race has been about as riveting as the gradual melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

Important? Yes. Dramatic? No.

After Obama’s initial surge last spring and summer, the glacial story transitioned into Hillary’s methodical climb to seeming dominance. Contrast that with the Republican contest, which has become the campaign equivalent of entropy: five lukewarm “leading” contenders. 

Like a boxer ringing in the points, Clinton clenches and drapes herself all over her opponents, trying to minimize Democratic differences over Iraq, Iran and health care.

And until now, neither Obama nor Edwards have been able to get enough distance from her to throw a knockdown punch.

On the Republican side, the candidates keep leapfrogging each other to the right, leaving little room for genuine debate. That is, with the exception of Rep. Ron Paul, who’s so far out there, he’s circumnavigating the ideological globe.

Switch flipped?
Can it all be this uneventful? No. Already, a change in mood has begun.

With less than eight weeks until the voting begins, it suddenly feels like somebody flipped a switch.

The urgent focus is on Hillary and Iowa. Is she the inevitable victor there, and, therefore, everywhere else?

Not quite. And the Clinton team understands that. “We run like we’re 20 points behind,” one of them told me.

Clinton 2008 Iowa
Presidential hopeful, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. signs a campaign poster during a campaign stop in Oskaloosa, Iowa, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2007.David Lienemann / AP

And that’s not a bad idea. At first, last week’s Philly fisticuffs seemed to have had no effect on the Clinton Camp, but her vague answers gave the Obama-Edwards tag team a line of attack they continue to recycle: Hillary is an all-too Clintonian dissembler.

After a few dozen news cycles, the idea seems to have taken hold. The latest CNN national poll shows Clinton’s national lead dropping from 30 points to 19.  

In Iowa and New Hampshire, campaign camps are smack-dab in the middle of their last round of “positive” ads before they launch the “comparative” ones that directly target their rivals.

Independent-spending groups will soon enter the fray, free to attack at will. And “Oppo” teams, waiting for a crucial moment, are pumping bilge with greater fervor.

But the attackers need to be careful, though, for two interrelated reasons. Iowans are especially averse to nasty campaigning. And multi-candidate races, on both sides this time, are not zero-sum contests. Often, the attacking candidate isn’t the one who benefits — a third candidate does.

The most recent example occurred in Iowa in 2004, when former Rep. Dick Gephardt exuberantly went after Gov. Howard Dean, a move that wound up benefiting the eventual caucus winner, Sen. John Kerry.

Anti-Hillary Parade?
This time, Edwards is taking the lead in the anti-Hillary parade, at least in terms of the vividness of his language. As a former trial attorney, he is putting her in the role of a corporate bad guy, attacking with relish and righteous zeal.

Doing so hasn’t helped his numbers nationally, but he is gambling that playing the prosecutor will energize his troops for the final push in what is, for him, do-or-die Iowa.

Strategists for Edwards and Obama insist that the Iowa race is a dead heat, and they may be right. But there is reason to be wary of the predictive value of the public polls in Iowa, which right now, taken in aggregate, show Hillary ahead by just a few points.

Iowans cherish their “decider” role, and that makes them decide late. And don’t forget that polls fail to measure intensity. Showing up at a caucus and sitting there for hours takes a sense of commitment that you can’t necessarily detect in a phone survey.

There’s one other factor in the Democratic race in Iowa: it’s called “threshold.” In each caucus, if 15 percent of those in attendance don’t vote for you, your vote isn’t counted at all.

After what is quaintly called “the first alignment,” you can go vote for someone else in the “second alignment” if your guy, or gal, doesn’t “make threshold.”

In 2004, Edwards got a boost from this process, as supporters of Rep. Dennis Kucinich moved over in the second round. Obama campaign leaders argue that Hillary’s role is tantamount to that of an incumbent, meaning that there is a fixed ceiling on her support. “Everybody who is going to be for her is already for her,” said campaign manager David Plouffe.

Obama, he says, can scoop up the non-threshold loose change.

Hillary’s current campaign mission is to fend off accusations that the Clinton Library has shut the door on releasing records of her time at the White House. Her supporters contend that the library is moving as quickly as can be expected. More to the point, they say, if Obama is so concerned about “transparency,” he should release his official papers from his time as a lawyer and member of the Illinois legislature.

These “who’s-come-clean” insinuations haven’t hit the phone banks yet, but I’m sure they will. It’s getting close to caucus time.