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With a contest in chaos, predictions are futile

People paying close attention to the 2008 presidential race have no idea what will happen next. The contest keeps defying precedents.
/ Source: The New York Times

People paying close attention to the 2008 presidential race have no idea what will happen next. The contest keeps defying precedents.

After defeating Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Iowa Democratic caucuses, Senator Barack Obama failed to win the New Hampshire primary. Mrs. Clinton followed her victory in New Hampshire by turning out the most supporters in the Nevada caucuses, only to see Mr. Obama claim an edge in the delegates in that state. She trails in South Carolina, the next Democratic contest.

The Republican race is even more disordered. Mike Huckabee stumbled in New Hampshire after winning Iowa, Senator John McCain stumbled in Michigan after winning New Hampshire, and Mitt Romney abandoned South Carolina after winning Michigan.

Overlapping historical currents may be responsible. The first election in a half-century with no incumbent president or vice president running features the first serious female and African-American contenders, the oldest-ever New Hampshire winner and a primary schedule accelerated like never before.

In the parlance of physics, a result is entropy. In medical terminology, it is a trend line as flat as the EEG of a brain-dead pundit.

Good fortune
A little over a week before the Florida Republican primary on Jan. 29, this chaos is a gift for Mike DuHaime, the campaign manager for Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Mr. DuHaime had always planned on a competitive race — but for entirely different reasons. He assumed that Mr. Giuliani’s strengths on terrorism and electability would let him withstand the momentum of winners from states Mr. Giuliani bypassed. In fact, Mr. Giuliani’s strength has ebbed for months. But early winners have not generated much momentum, either.

The post-Sept. 11 prominence of national security, Republican ennui, a shifting Democratic race — all of that “leads to a level of uncertainty, creates more of an X factor,” Mr. DuHaime said.

The bottom line: Florida polls show Mr. Giuliani, despite dismal showings thus far, roughly even with Mr. McCain for the lead.

Brain tease
The possibility of a Giuliani victory sounds astonishing to Daron Shaw, a University of Texas political scientist who worked for George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns. Dr. Shaw expected Mr. Obama in New Hampshire and Mr. McCain in Michigan to benefit from voters’ long-demonstrated propensity to flock toward expected winners.

“If Giuliani wins Florida,” he said, “you’ve got a real case for saying, ‘Is momentum dead?’ ”

Despite winner-take-all Republican rules devised to propel front-runners toward the nomination, Dr. Shaw expects Mr. Huckabee to accumulate delegates in Southern contests on Feb. 5, Mr. McCain to score in the West and the wealthy Mr. Romney and the well-known Mr. Giuliani to battle in the Northeast.

Like all political analysts, Dr. Shaw scans for patterns from past campaigns. The closest parallel he finds is 1976. That places Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama in the roles of President Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan, then a formidable Republican primary challenger. The 2008 Republican field, meanwhile, would then resemble what was seen as an underwhelming Democratic field of Jimmy Carter, Henry Jackson and Morris Udall.

Lessons learned?
Sergio Bendixen, a Clinton strategist who is a veteran of three decades of Democratic primary contests, comforts himself with memories of 1984. Then, the Democratic front-runner, Walter Mondale, overcame an insurgent, Gary Hart, by demanding “Where’s the beef?” and rallying establishment politicians and blue-collar voters.

That resembles Mrs. Clinton’s script for defeating Mr. Obama. Her diminished but persistent lead in national polls augurs well for contests on Feb. 5 in 22 states. Working-class Democrats still outvote their reform-minded upscale counterparts, and Mrs. Clinton’s edge among the Hispanic electorate will help in battles that day in Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico.

But no Democratic insurgent since Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 could command African-American support like Mr. Obama’s, which is critical in urban centers and across the South. That is why Mr. Obama leads in South Carolina and why Mr. Bendixen cannot be sure the Mondale analogy will hold.

“I don’t think any of us knows,” he said.