On All Sides, Stakes Couldn't Be Higher
By Dan Balz
DES MOINES -- This is the day Hillary Clinton's campaign has anticipated, pointed to, prepared for -- and dreaded -- since the New York senator announced her candidacy on Jan. 20, 2007. Victory here Thursday night will be a clear boost and a huge relief. Defeat will send the ever-aggressive Clinton camp to Def Con 1.
Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa and former candidate for president, was prowling the corridors of the Polk County Convention Center Thursday morning. Like all supporters of Hillary Clinton, he is trying not to show his nervousness.
Vilsack said he had checked with the campaign's numbers guru here in Iowa, Karen Hicks. If turnout doesn't totally blow the doors off the caucus sites, he said, the Clinton camp remains cautiously optimistic. Anything beyond that spells trouble. Yet even those assumptions might be overly upbeat.
For the national front-runner, Iowa has been a struggle from start to finish. The state looked inhospitable enough for deputy campaign manager Mike Henry to suggest in a memo last spring that the candidate consider skipping the state and saving what will be more than $20 million spent here for use in other states.
As a result, the Clinton team will take any kind of win possible -- clean or narrow -- and scamper out of Iowa feeling lucky. But it is the prospect of a possible Clinton defeat -- particularly to Barack Obama -- that would radically reshape the Democratic nomination.
The permutations are many, depending on who wins here Thursday and by how much -- and who finishes third among Clinton, Obama and Edwards. But one thing seems likely: What has been a hard-fought but relatively civil contest may turn sharply negative overnight. A Clinton loss in Iowa would dramatically raise the stakes for upcoming contests.
It was once assumed that a Clinton victory would give her unstoppable momentum for the nomination. That may still be true, but New Hampshire has become a much different race than it was two months ago, with Obama rising and even Edwards showing more support.
The five days between Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary -- with a big debate on Saturday night -- will produce one of the shortest and most fiercely fought contests that state has seen.
I talked with Bill Mayer on Wednesday. He's a political science professor at Northeastern University and the editor and co-author of a number of books on the nominating process. I asked him about the infamous Iowa Bounce -- the boost that a winning candidate gets heading into New Hampshire. What he said was instructive.
There is a modest bounce for the Iowa winner but with a relatively short half-life, and it begins to dissipate about four days after Iowa. In a normal calendar -- eight days between Iowa and New Hampshire -- it's possible for a loser in Iowa to recover and for a winner to begin to lose some of the Iowa glow. But with just five days in between, the Iowa Bounce might be decisive.
That means an Obama victory in Iowa would spell significant trouble for Clinton in New Hampshire -- and, conversely, a Clinton victory here Thursday night could help her arrest what has been a decline in her support.
Obama advisers believe they are in the same position everyone has assumed Clinton was in. If he wins Iowa, they believe, he will become the Democratic nominee. Not without a fight, but they see the momentum building quickly behind him, pushing him to victory in New Hampshire and then again in South Carolina, where his statewide organization has been judged as superior to Clinton's.
Edwards believes that a victory in Iowa will help him enormously in New Hampshire, even though he has long struggled more there than in Iowa. But his hope will be to survive New Hampshire. His real play will come later -- in Nevada and then South Carolina, which he won in 2004. He will be at a financial disadvantage, however. Losses anywhere will cost him dearly.
Edwards's senior adviser Joe Trippi has a counterintuitive theory, which is that even if Clinton wins, she could face problems in New Hampshire. His thinking is that New Hampshire voters may decide, especially if the results in Iowa are close, that they don't want the Democratic race to end there and will be less inclined to ratify a Clinton victory. That seems overly Machiavellian, but Trippi says he believes it.
Such theories abound here right now. Iowa is an information vacuum until Thursday night, a petri dish for speculation. As the saying goes, bad data is better than no data, and right now, no one has anything concrete on which to prepare for the next round, which means the campaigns are doing two things: making assumptions and contingencies for all of them.
One of the wild cards about New Hampshire is the independent vote. Obama needs it there as he needs it here, and so does John McCain, whose rejuvenated candidacy now is on an upward trajectory.
It's been assumed that the better Obama does in Iowa, the more that might rob McCain of independents in New Hampshire. A top McCain adviser said Wednesday night they believe they will get enough independents' support regardless of whether Obama wins here.
McCain roared through Iowa on Wednesday hoping to stoke what appears to be growing enthusiasm in the state into a solid third-place finish -- and the overflow crowd that awaited him at his headquarters testified to his renewed energy. Given where he was a few months ago here -- battered over immigration and sinking into single digits -- a solid third looks highly possible.
He and Mitt Romney have been brawling for more than a week now. Their feud will only intensify by the time the campaigns arrive in New Hampshire. A Romney loss to Mike Huckabee in Iowa will make New Hampshire make-or-break for his candidacy. A Romney victory over Huckabee will put McCain on notice in New Hampshire.
Either way, the bad blood between McCain and Romney -- and the urgency facing Rudy Giuliani to win votes somewhere -- means the Republican race in New Hampshire may be even more negative than the Democratic race, and far less likely than the Democratic race to end there.
As always, Iowa will be a prelude to the rest of the campaign. It has been a wild, wild year, with the final chapter here ready to unfold. Then it's on to New Hampshire and points beyond. By Friday morning, it could be a brand new campaign.
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