As anticipated, the most fascinating presidential race in a generation has just gotten more fascinating.
Both parties have either dual frontrunners or no frontrunners, depending on your point of view. Nobody has a clear shot at either nomination and believe it or not, after both Iowa and New Hampshire, we still have six plausible presidents (two Democrats and four Republicans with two wild cards who can determine the eventual winner).
So where do we go from here? And what's each candidate's path to the nomination now?
Let's start with the easy side: the Democrats. It's now a two-person race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Sorry John Edwards, but the party appears to be dividing in two between the old establishment (Clinton) and the new establishment (Obama). Edwards doesn't have the money for paid media or the poll numbers for free media to keep in this race. He needed Obama to thump Clinton in New Hampshire so he could be the last man standing. That plan is out the window.
What makes Edwards relevant, though, is his 10-15 percent support. Where does it go? Do the blue-collar, conservative Dems go with Clinton or are these folks anti-Clinton first and pro-Edwards second making them likely Obama supporters? Both theories are plausible and I won't begin to speculate. One thing's for sure, both Clinton and Obama are going to be making strong plays for his support from here on out.
With our Edwards addendum out of the way, let's get to the Clinton and Obama paths, neither of which are clear.
Among the good problems Clinton has acquired since her Tuesday primary win is the need to find another state where she can win. When it appeared she would lose New Hampshire, there were whispers she would skip both Nevada and South Carolina. She can't do that now, at least as far as Nevada's concerned, since she's led every public poll in that state.
One thing Clinton doesn't want to do is lose both Nevada and South Carolina. But a split makes Feb. 5 doable. Losing both makes Feb. 5 a bit more troublesome. Of the two, Nevada seems like the better place for her to notch a win since South Carolina's demographics give Obama such an apparent advantage.
Handicapping Nevada is very difficult. The state's never really done this before and one wonders how insider-ish this thing is going to be. Nevada is a state of interest groups and those interest groups usually have more sway in a primary than in the average state. Will that still be the case come Jan. 19? We'll see. Turnout has been up everywhere. Who's to say Obama doesn't turn this caucus into a primary, a la Iowa?
Before Iowa, I would have made Clinton the definite favorite in Nevada. Now? I think it's a coin toss. She's got the old-school establishment with her, but Obama's got the support of the key union in the state - the Culinary union. This will be the first test of where Edwards' vote goes since, like, Iowa, a candidate needs 15 percent threshold and I'm guessing Edwards will now have problems reaching that in some places.
The other wild card is Bill Richardson. Does he take the Hispanic vote from Clinton or does he fail to get the threshold and see his vote help her?
One other point on Clinton. Just because she won New Hampshire doesn't mean she's completely erased some of her core issues, including the lack of a consistent message, the difficulty getting out of her husband's shadow, and a staff who may have trust issues after they stabbed each other in the back.
Obama's path to the nomination is easier if he sweeps Nevada and South Carolina. He can still win this if he splits the two states, but it won't be easy. A sweep probably makes him the slight favorite on Feb. 5.
Obama's chief challenges over the next month are to prove competency on the experience front, to figure out how to woo more women from Clinton, and to get aggressive against her without going negative.
Six weeks ago if you told the Obama folks they'd win Iowa by eight and lose New Hampshire by three, they would have taken that in a heartbeat.
If the Democratic picture is foggy, then the Republican side is downright murky. There appear to be four plausible nominees and a wild card (Fred Thompson) who could help determine who wins South Carolina.
The guy in the driver's seat, at least temporarily is John McCain because the next two states are places he can easily get 40 percent. In a multi-candidate race that is more than enough to win both states. That's the good news.
The bad news is it's going to be hard for McCain to sustain a loss in either state, though I'd argue if he wins Michigan, South Carolina isn't a must win as long as the candidate who does wins it is Mike Huckabee.
If McCain sweeps Michigan and South Carolina, he will be the nominee. The GOP establishment is ready to rally behind him, they just want to make sure he's ready to be a frontrunner again. The guy's never been a good frontrunner.
Huckabee's path is similar to McCain's. A sweep of the next two and he'll probably be the nominee (though he'll not have much established support) and he'll probably be forced to go through a longer process to "earn" it, a la Bill Clinton in '92.
Huckabee can't win this nomination by just winning states with large pockets of evangelicals, that's why Michigan is so fascinating. It's a state that can be susceptible to a populist message. If there ever was an opportunity for Huckabee to prove that his "Main Street vs. Wall Street" theme can be a good one for the party, it's Michigan.
Mitt Romney's alive today only because the donor he needs to convince every morning is the one he stares at while shaving. But for the rest of the GOP to take his two "silver medals" in Iowa and New Hampshire seriously, Michigan (an almost-home state) is a must-win, period. Romney's in the Ricky Bobby zone now - if he ain’t first in Michigan, he's last. The way this GOP fight is going, I half expect Romney to win, continuing the chaos.
Rudy Giuliani's campaign swears all is calm. But as I write that phrase, I am picturing Kevin Bacon's character in the movie "Animal House," screaming "remain calm" while the folks start running over him. No candidate needs continued chaos more. The last thing he needs is for McCain to get on a roll. A Romney-Huckabee split in Michigan and South Carolina is Giuliani's ideal scenario going into Florida. Obviously, there's no Plan B for Rudy if he loses Florida.
So there you have it. Get your conventional wisdom now before it goes stale, because the pace of this race is so breakneck that today's wisdom is tomorrow's ridiculous commentary. Enjoy the ride. It's going to be great.