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As Obama emerges, GOP gets murkier

Barack Obama is emerging at the front of the Democratic pack, but the Republicans' field is still wide open -- and changing every day.
/ Source: National Journal

What a difference a couple of weeks make! It wasn't long ago that Sen. 's candidacy looked dead, former Massachusetts Gov. looked on pace to win in Iowa and New Hampshire, and former Arkansas Gov. appeared to be a novelty candidate. On the other side of the aisle, Illinois Sen. was raising a lot of money but just didn't look like he could close the formidable advantage that New York Sen. had built in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

Now here we are on primary day in New Hampshire, and it looks as if Huckabee's win in Iowa effectively put the brakes on Romney's momentum in what might be the best comeback since Lazarus rose from the dead. McCain appears to have an excellent chance of edging out the former Massachusetts governor today. On the other side, Obama has become a phenomenon, and now a Clinton win would constitute an upset.

The reality of Obama's strength dawned on me on caucus night in Iowa, walking into the auditorium of the Callahan Middle School in a working-class neighborhood in western Des Moines and finding half the room filling up with Obama supporters. In expressing their initial preference, 174 out of 365 attendees stood with Obama, with another 63 seats occupied by Clinton backers, 55 more for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, 29 for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, 13 for Ohio Rep. , 12 for Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, six for Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd and 16 uncommitted. But what was more interesting was that the Obama section did not look like a fraternity or sorority party. While there were certainly more young people seated in the Obama camp than in the others, his supporters encompassed a remarkable range of ages. Obama benefited from having more young people, but his victory cannot simply be attributed to a lot more kids turning out than normal. Simply put, there were a lot of Obama backers there who were not young and were not black. They were white and middle-aged or older. In a few cases, there appeared to be young people accompanied by aging grandparents, all caucusing for Obama. The Illinois senator has made the transition from being a candidate to being a movement.

The Democratic nomination fight may not be over, but the landscape has completely changed. Assuming an Obama victory tonight, it is unrealistic to expect Clinton and Edwards to both fold their tents. But whichever one continues on would have to run a slash-and-burn "Stop Obama" campaign. Such a maneuver would very likely create a backlash and encounter an enormous amount of pressure to cease and desist.

Whether Democrats should nominate Barack Obama or not is for someone else to decide. It remains to be seen whether he can successfully address concerns about his inexperience. But this nomination may well be settled before the answer to that question is known. Democrats now seem to want to nominate Obama and look very likely to do so unless he quickly appears to be a risk. It will be very difficult for either Clinton or Edwards to successfully raise those doubts at this point without rendering themselves unelectable as well.

On the Republican side, things will likely get very muddled, and perhaps stay that way for a while. Huckabee was unable to replicate his Iowa win in Wyoming, where Romney won, and is unlikely to win in New Hampshire, where McCain and Romney are battling it out. He also seems unlikely to win in Michigan on Jan. 15 or in Nevada on Jan. 19. Huckabee does, however, stand a decent chance in South Carolina and at least a half dozen of the Feb. 5 states. Indeed, of the 19 states holding GOP primaries or caucuses on Feb. 5, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain and Romney all have states they could win.

In short, we may be looking at a very early Democratic nomination and a much longer, more sustained fight for the GOP nod.