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Hey, Mo!

Why early state contests may not be the decisive factor in the contest to pick both a  Democratic and a Republican presidential nominee.
/ Source: National Journal

There's a new term this year in the political lexicon: "momentum-proof."

It was coined a few weeks ago by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's top strategists to make the point that their candidate's support in the states that come after Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina was sufficiently large enough that he could lose in the early states and still hold on to win enough delegates to capture the GOP presidential nomination.

While no candidate has lost the first four contests and come back to win the nomination, Giuliani's handlers made a case that this was plausible, and it could turn out to be true. Indeed, it may be even more likely now than it was when Giuliani's people first articulated it.

If former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney loses the Iowa caucuses to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee or wins unimpressively, and if subsequent victories in his next-door-neighbor state of New Hampshire and his native state of Michigan ring a little hollow because they are viewed as home games for Romney, Giuliani might be able to mount a successful comeback.

While Giuliani has been hit with some tough and potentially damaging stories about his personal life and expenditures during his tenure as mayor in recent days, it hasn't been a good time for Romney, either.

If Huckabee had resources and a real organization, this would be the perfect scenario. But he doesn't, and it isn't clear that he'll get them in the next month. If Romney has an ace in the hole, it's that he will be in a position to outspend Huckabee by a 20-to-1 ratio over the next month -- more if necessary. Any Romney victory may require him to win ugly.

The sharp delineation between Romney, the front-runner in the first three or four states, and Giuliani, who leads most other places, makes this race so confounding and wonderful. Historical nomination patterns are being challenged.

Another campaign that might use the term "momentum-proof" is that of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. In fact, her campaign could use the term with even greater plausibility.

By my count, out of the 22 Iowa Democratic caucus polls conducted since Labor Day, Clinton has typically led the field more than any other candidate, but Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has recently begun to close the gap.

To be fair, most of the margins for both candidates were very small and often within the margin of error. That was the case in a Des Moines Register poll released Sunday, showing Obama with 28 percent and Clinton with 25 percent. The poll of 500 likely Democratic voters was conducted Nov. 25 through Nov. 28 and has a 4-point error margin.

A Pew Research Center/Associated Press poll [PDF] released Monday showed Clinton at 31 percent and Obama at 26 percent. The poll of 460 likely Democratic voters was conducted Nov. 7 through Nov. 25 and has a 5.5-point error margin.

Suffice it to say that a race that was already close has gotten even closer in recent weeks.

But the Pew/AP poll released Monday, showing results not just in Iowa, but also in the other early states of New Hampshire and South Carolina as well as a national sampling (after all, Feb. 5 is pretty much a national primary) shows how bifurcated this Democratic contest is.

While Iowa is by all measures close, Clinton has large leads over Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in New Hampshire, South Carolina and nationally. And even Obama's latest Iowa standing in the Des Moines Register poll comes with some important caveats, according to the Register's highly regarded political columnist David Yepsen. In his Sunday column, Yepsen stated that "Obama's gained 6 points in the last month and has opened up a statistically insignificant lead over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. That lead looks even weaker when you consider a chunk of Obama's support comes from younger adults, who are notoriously poor caucusgoers."

Yepsen goes on to note that "only 5 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers are under 25," and that "in 2004, only 17 percent were under 29." He adds that "Obama might also be expected to spend a little more time in rural Iowa. He runs weakest there, yet 47 percent of the likely caucusgoers say they're from rural areas or small towns."

Indeed, the caucus process is set up and delegates allocated in a way that ensures candidates strong in Des Moines and other urban areas cannot easily dominate those who are strong in the rural parts of the state.

The bottom line is that Obama has to show strength beyond Iowa if he is to beat Clinton and win the Democratic nomination.

Yes, he has to win Iowa in order to live to fight in the next round of states. The latest batch of polls and the balance of the primary and caucus schedule reflect the magnitude of that challenge.

As popular as it has become to denigrate national polls, they do reflect the attitudes of voters outside the early primary states, whose opinions may, for once, count in the nomination fights.