Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign is teetering on the brink, no matter what the meaningless national horserace numbers say. The notion that she has a post-Iowa “firewall” in New Hampshire is a fantasy, and she is in danger of losing all four early contests, including Nevada and South Carolina – probably to Sen. Barack Obama, who is now, in momentum terms, the Democratic frontrunner.
On the Republican side, meanwhile, the race is shaping up in an even more unexpected way: a contest between two former Northern moderates (Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney) for the right to take on a Southern Baptist preacher, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who believes in the inerrancy of Scripture but not in Darwinian evolution.
This week is the last chance the candidates will gather en masse to confront each other, and in a neutral setting. They are wending their way through ice storms to Iowa, where the Des Moines Register and Iowa Public Television are hosting back-to-back debates.
Here’s where things stand for the major candidates with the most to gain and lose in the debates, in Iowa, and in the early going. Take a good look at the rest of the field. They won’t be around for long.
National polls still give Hillary a double-digit lead. Those polls mean nothing. What matters now is not the number but the direction, and Obama is movin’ on up at a rapid pace. Little pieces of evidence matter. In Manchester, N.H., the other day, Democratic Gov. John Lynch showed up at the Obama-Oprah rally, ostensibly to introduce Oprah, but, really to cover his bets politically. The newest polls in the state show why: Obama is tied with Hillary, and people are literally exchanging her lawn signs for his. If he can win Iowa – and it remains a big if – Hillary’s campaign could collapse. New Hampshire would almost surely go his way. The Culinary Workers in Nevada might well endorse him, as could influential South Carolina Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn. Black Democrats have complained for years that Iowa and New Hampshire are “too white.” But the irony is, South Carolina African-Americans I talked to last weekend want to see if Obama can win white votes before they commit to him. There is no better way of doing that than in Iowa and New Hampshire. And don’t forget something else: he has 150,000 online contributors. He can raise cash fast.
If she is going to argue that Obama is unelectable in the fall – if she is going to argue that the Democrats cannot afford to take the risk on a Southside Chicago street organizer – she had better get to it in the debate this week. But it is a tricky proposition. In a way, Hillary is trapped by her own do-it-yourself feminist ethos. She should have surrogates out there pounding away at Obama. I haven’t seen them. And her husband, evidently, won’t do it. Why should Bill Clinton tarnish his image as “America’s first black president” by attacking the man who might be the real deal? His circle is beginning to complain, loudly, about how Hillary is running her campaign. That kind of circular firing squad chatter is the first sign of a campaign headed into oblivion.
Quite simply, this Iowa debate (and Iowa itself) is his first and last chance. He has placed all his money and bets for years on Iowa, where he is practically a local at this point. He absolutely HAS to win to get the media attention he needs to leverage his effort here into national momentum. He has the best, most cogent and inspiring stump speech, and a good, loyal organization. He could get pummeled by media dynamics. There will be exit polls on caucus night, but they will not be an accurate reflection of the final tallies of caucus delegates – the legally meaningful number – until later. Also, he is strongest in the small western towns, whose disproportionate influence in the delegate tallies (don’t ask) won’t show up in the exits. In other words, he could win but not get credit for it by the time the winners are declared.
He can expect to be under fire from all sides, and his goal has to be to keep smiling and talking and explaining in a genial way. The man has a temper and not the thickest of skins, but he is also a brilliant rhetorical tactician and a stone-cold survivor of some of the roughest local politics in the nation, in Arkansas. As a preacher and then as a novice politician, he said and stood for some controversial things – things that come awfully close to sounding like he wanted to use public office to bring the nation to Christ. Ironically, it’s Mitt Romney who has had to defend his faith, but it’s Huckabee – an ordained minister – who has the real explaining to do. But his competitors probably won’t press that case – too dangerous. Instead, they will focus on immigration, taxes and other less freighted issues. If Huck wins Iowa, he heads straight for South Carolina – the real deal for the GOP – and he will be hard to stop there.
The bad news for Romney is that he is getting blown out in Iowa, where he spent too much time and money. He and Rudy have to hope that the ol’ prosecutor himself, Fred Thompson, is willing to step up and try to take down Huckabee. Romney’s hopes now rest not in Iowa, but in New Hampshire, where he would have to make his stand. Huckabee is the revenge of history on the GOP. Party strategists built the base on evangelicals in the South. Now they will have to live with the results.
He clearly loves Judith Nathan, which is a good thing, because that love might cost him the nomination. The “Tryst Fund” stories came at the worst possible time, and were particularly damaging because they involved the use of police resources by the law-and-order guy. He barely survived a grilling that Tim Russert gave him on “Meet the Press.” Also, terrorism has faded as an issue. The top one now is the economy, which, on the GOP side, is translated into fears about immigration. Rudy is not, shall we say, well positioned on that issue.