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John Edwards's Iowa Surprise

Most Democrats involved or interested in the early moves of the 2008 presidential chess game spent the weekend focused on the Yearly Kos convention out in Las Vegas, where progressive bloggers and activists from across the country gathered to hear political speeches and strategize on how to exercise greater influence in this year's elections.

But a thousand miles or so to the northeast some news came out of Iowa that should open some eyes among Democratic partisans.

The Des Moines Register released the results of a poll of likely 2008 Democratic caucus participants that established John Edwards -- not Hillary Rodham Clinton -- as the current frontrunner in the Hawkeye State. Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and 2004 vice presidential nominee, took 30 percent to 26 percent for New York Sen. Clinton.

John Kerry, the party's 2004 nominee, had the support of 12 percent of the survey's sample, while homestate Gov. Tom Vilsack had 10 percent -- the only other candidates to attract double-digit support in the poll. Other candidates expected to enter the 2008 Democratic presidential contest, like former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, garnered low single-digit support.

On one level, the results of the Register poll aren't terribly surprising. Edwards finished a strong second behind Kerry in the 2004 Iowa caucuses and has never shut down his operation there. (Several top Edwards aides in Iowa are currently involved this year in Secretary of State Chet Culver's gubernatorial campaign.) Since leaving office in 2004, Edwards has visited the state regularly to keep that network active -- he spent Sunday campaigning for Bruce Braley, the Democratic nominee in the 1st congressional district, and he is scheduled to help raise money for Culver today.

In addition, Edwards's high-profile apology last year for his 2002 vote in favor of the use-of-force resolution against Iraq was an act of contrition that played well with liberal, anti-war activists that traditionally vote in large numbers in the Iowa caucuses.

Clinton, by contrast, has sought the middle ground on the Iraq war, refusing to apologize for her "yes" vote on the use of force resolution or propose a timetable or deadline for American troops to withdraw from Iraq. Clinton also has not visited Iowa this year, careful to stay true to her pledge to focus all of her energy on winning a second Senate term in the fall. (She did host a group of Iowa activists at her home in Washington last year, a gathering I wrote about for Roll Call.)

If Edwards was the clear winner in the Register poll, the most obvious loser was Vilsack, who could do no better than fourth in his home state. While few political observers expect Vilsack to be able to equal or surpass Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's 76 percent showing in the 1992 Democratic caucuses, anything other than a victory in the state in the '08 caucuses would almost certainly cripple the governor's chances in New Hampshire and beyond.

Vilsack's poor showing comes less than a week after his two preferred candidates in the state's June 6 primary election -- former economic development director Mike Blouin and former aide Dusky Terry -- lost races for the Democratic nominations for governor and secretary of agriculture, respectively. A recent poll also showed that 50 percent of Iowa Democratic primary voters preferred a change, while 41 percent wanted to continue in the direction Vilsack had led the state over the past eight years.

The news was also not good for Kerry, who received less than half the support of his former vice presidential running mate. Kerry has not focused much time and attention on Iowa in the past two years. But after winning the caucuses with 38 percent of the votes in 2004, Kerry's current standing shows that a number of past supporters are either supporting another candidate or remain undecided.

As for Warner (3 percent support in the Register poll), Bayh (2 percent), former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle (3 percent), Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold (3 percent) and retired Gen. Wesley Clark (2 percent), the jury remains out. None of these candidates is well-known enough now for any survey to accurately measure their potential showing in the 2008 caucuses.

Both Warner and Bayh are nearly certain to have the campaign warchests needed to introduce themselves to Iowa's voters, which should allow them to move up in the polls over the next nine to 12 months. Feingold's positioning as the most liberal candidate in the field should make him a player in the caucuses as well, although he is likely to be heavily outspent by people like Clinton and Warner.

While it's important to take any poll conducted 18 months before caucus day with a grain of salt, the Register poll and the post-game analysis of the Yearly Kos convention are sure to be the hot topics among the Democratic chattering classes this week.

Edwards's strong showing in the poll should silence some critics who believe his lack of fundraising so far this cycle is a sign of a lack of energy for his candidacy. It will also be interesting to see whether Clinton's allies make any effort to spin the poll, which shows -- at the very least -- that she will not win the Democratic nomination by coronation. Vilsack, no matter what, will struggle to spin good news out of the numbers.

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 12, 2006; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party , Eye on 2008  
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Next: McCain's Call for Fiscal Sanity

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