What to watch for in the Iowa caucuses

Gephardt makes a last-minute stop on the Iowa campaign trail in Des Moines on Monday.John Gress / Reuters
/ Source: msnbc.com

Bringing a crowd of 600 people in Waterloo, Iowa, to its feet Sunday by exhorting them to support Sen. John Kerry, his Massachusetts colleague Ted Kennedy delivered a jolt of electricity to the four-way contest to win Monday’s night’s Iowa caucuses, the opening event of the 2004 campaign.

Monday evening’s contest shapes up as one of the closest, most volatile caucus nights since the event became a required stop for presidential candidates in 1976.

A new poll published Sunday by the Des Moines Register showed that Kerry leads the pack, with the support of 26 percent of likely caucus participants. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards places second with 23 percent.

Dean slipping in polls
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the man many considered the front-runner here over the past few months, has slipped to third place in the Register poll, with 20 percent, two percentage points ahead of Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt.

Dean has also slipped over the past week in the MSNBC/Reuters Zogby poll and in a survey done by KCCI, a Des Moines TV station.

Gephardt, who won the Iowa caucuses in 1988, warned against giving too much credence to the polls. “Most of the polling is of people that have attended in the past,” he told reporters Saturday. “If you can bring new people, every thousand new people you can bring, adds a percentage point to your total.”

Iowa is a big test for the vote-getting ability of the 21 labor unions that back Gephardt.

“You win by having the best organization that can get out your people, people who are committed to you and people that have never been to the caucuses,” Gephardt said. “Only about 100,000 people will show up at these caucuses so if you can bring new people to the caucus that have never been, that is a huge asset.” He vowed that his unions would in fact bring new people to the caucuses and help him win.

Dean’s army of canvassers
Dean, too, has assembled a formidable army of canvassers and cadres, including battle-tested professionals from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, probably the nation’s politically savviest union.

But MSNBC.com interviews with several voters over the past four days confirm the slippage in support for Dean that is evident in polling. Some Iowans who had leaned toward Dean in August and September have re-examined him and decided to back someone else.

And yet at this point Dean does not necessarily need to convert any of the uncommitted voters. If he and his organizers deliver every hard-core Dean supporter to the caucuses, he may well prevail.

Kerry supporter Iowa State Attorney General Tom Miller, a political veteran who has won six statewide races here, told MSNBC.com Sunday after hearing Kennedy and Kerry speak in Waterloo, “the real unknown is how many new people are out there for Dean.”

Savvy political pros here in Iowa admit they do not know what to expect when the results are called in from the 1,993 precincts at about 9 p.m. ET.

Kerry has an undeniable sense of momentum and exhilaration, powered in part by Kennedy’s two tours of the state, firing up crowds on Kerry’s behalf.

The Edwards campaign also has momentum, with the North Carolina senator, a virtuoso trial lawyer, excelling at making his “closing statement” to audiences all across the state.

Rob Tully, the co-chairman of the Edwards Iowa campaign, gamely tried to temper expectations late Saturday.

“Based on the movement we’ve had over the last week and a half I don’t think third place is out of sight for us,” he said. “We just had an event in Maquoketa, on a Saturday afternoon at the library, we had 70 people stuffed into a room and that’s the way all our events have been. People have decided they’re going to take one last look at John.”

If the final results have the four top contenders closely bunched it will difficult to say what the outcome portends, but assuming a tight four-way finish, here’s what placing first would mean for each contender:

Kerry: For the Massachusetts senator to win Monday night would be a story-book comeback as unexpected as American politics has seen in recent years.

Just two weeks ago pundits and rival campaigns were mocking Kerry as his poll numbers in New Hampshire kept slipping. A win in Iowa would restore his hopes of capturing the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27.

A close second in Iowa, within a few percentage point of the winner, wouldn’t be as dramatic but would still exceed the expectations that many observers had only a few weeks ago.

Dean: A first, even if by a whisker, would be sweet vindication after doubts about Dean kept growing and his poll numbers kept dropping, both in Iowa and New Hampshire in the past week.

In one sense Dean is the unwitting victim of hyperbolic expectations created by the news media. Both major news magazines have chosen top put him on their covers not just once but twice.

And reporters, including myself, concluded that Dean’s $40 million in campaign cash made him an odds-on favorite to win the nomination.

An Iowa win would vindicate those who picked Dean as the front-runner.

Edwards: Could Edwards place first in the caucuses? Tully warned that saying so would be like jinxing the Chicago Cubs by saying they’d win the World Series.  “Realistically, though, I think we have a real shot at third place, which is more than what people expected for John Edwards. If anything else happens, it’s just icing on the cake.”

Another Edwards backer, North Carolina Rep. Bob Etheridge, who was in Iowa over the weekend to boost his fellow Tarheel, was less guarded, saying, “I think Monday night he may shock some folks.”

Gephardt: For the Missouri congressman a win in Iowa means a reprieve from political extinction.

He could continue to do battle in New Hampshire and in the Feb. 3 contests, which include his own state and another Midwestern state Gephardt might win, North Dakota.

But if Gephardt wins Iowa, the next jackpot for him would be Michigan’s Feb. 7 party-run primary. Gephardt has contended all along that he can defeat Bush in Midwestern industrial states and thus win the White House. There’s no better place to put that premise to the test than in Michigan.

But first Gephardt must hope his unions deliver Iowa voters for him.