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The Friday Line: Next Stop New Hampshire

Iowa changes everything. Or maybe not.

The meaning of the stunning -- and surprisingly large -- victories by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) in Iowa last night are still being debated as the political world moves on to New Hampshire, which will hold its primary in just four days.

Here's what we do know:

* Voters upended the status quo, choosing two candidates who railed against politics as usual and promised to bring the country together rather than divide it. It appears -- at least from a small sample in Iowa -- that voter reaction to the last eight years of the Bush Administration is not anger per se but rather a desire to do things differently.

* Turnout in both parties exceeded expectations, suggesting that voters are more engaged in this election than in any in recent political history. The number of Democrats who voted -- somewhere north of 235,000 at last count -- is an absolutely staggering testament to the work that Obama, as well as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), did to expand the universe of the party. It is also a warning sign for Republicans; not only is there a clear energy/excitement gap between the two parties but Democrats are also finding more success in wooing independents to their cause.

* The Republican race is TOTALLY wide open. A majority of Iowa Republicans made their mind up about a candidate in the last week before the caucuses, according to final entrance polls. Combine that fluidity with the fact that it seems almost certain that someone other than Huckabee will win in New Hampshire next week and you have a recipe for an extended fight for the nomination -- good news for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

* The Democratic race is almost certain to become a two-person contest in New Hampshire. John Edwards' campaign pushed hard last night -- and into this morning -- to cast his second place finish as a "victory for change," but the reality is that this campaign was always going to come down to Hillary Clinton and an anti-Clinton candidate. Obama is now clearly that candidate and unless he slips in the next four days, it's hard to see Edwards remaining viable beyond New Hampshire.

With the caucus vote behind us, the field has already begun to slim -- Sens. Joe Biden (Del.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.) bowed out last night -- and should contract more in the coming days. As a result, we are no longer ranking five Democrats and five Republicans on the Line but rather ranking only the candidates who still have a real chance at the nomination. But some things aren't changing. As always, the number one ranked candidate on the Line has the best chance of winning the party's nomination. Agree or disagree? The comments section is open for business.


REPUBLICANS

4. Rudy Giuliani: Hizzoner has been out of the political conversation for a few weeks now and he's going to have to weather another three weeks -- at least -- before the focus turns to Florida's Jan. 29 primary, which the Giuliani campaign has cast as his firewall. What Giuliani is trying to do -- out of necessity more than conviction -- is break the stranglehold that the earliest states have long held on determining the identity of the nominee. If he can win the nomination, and that remains a MAJOR "if," Giuliani will have fundamentally altered the calculus of how nominees are chosen in the modern era. It's a major gamble, however, as the race could well be all-but-decided before the nation's attention ever turns to Florida. (Previous ranking: 4)

3. Mike Huckabee: It remains to be seen just how much bounce Huckabee will get in New Hampshire from his Iowa victory but our guess is that third place is probably the best he will do in the state. Romney and McCain appear ready to duke it out for first and second place. That means that the next big test for Huckabee is South Carolina where his demonstrated strength among evangelicals in Iowa should pay major dividends. Given that Huckabee could well win two of the first four states, why isn't he ranked higher? Because the fight for the Republican nomination now seems more likely to be a marathon than a sprint (to borrow a Huckabism) and the former Arkansas governor still has not demonstrated his ability to compete financially and organizationally in Florida (and beyond).

1. John McCain (tie): Even as we type this, we are stunned by the extent of the McCain comeback. The Arizona Senator was written off by his fellow candidates and the national media in August but continued to plug along outside of the spotlight, smartly focusing almost all of his time and resources on New Hampshire. Now, McCain appears ready to repeat his success of 2000 in the Granite State and, if he does, a path to the nomination suddenly opens up. McCain would be an early favorite in Michigan -- remember he won the state eight years ago -- and that could well build momentum as he heads to South Carolina where Huckabee awaits. McCain's great advantage in this nominating contest is -- and always has been -- that he has done it before. He knows what lies ahead of him and how to handle it. That could make all the difference down the stretch. (Previous ranking: 3)

1. Mitt Romney (tie): Yes, we know he spent millions of dollars to lose badly to Huckabee in Iowa. And, yes, we know that recent independent polling has shown Romney falling into second place behind McCain in New Hampshire. But, until we know what happens in the Granite State next Tuesday, it's hard to rank Romney anywhere but where we have him. He remains the best-funded candidate in the race and has worked for months to build a strong organization in New Hampshire. If he can pull off a win there next Tuesday, then Romney is right back in track as he will be well-positioned in his native Michigan. Of course, if he loses New Hampshire to McCain, it's probably the end for Romney. He's an all or nothing candidate. We'll find out which next Tuesday. (Previous ranking: 1)

DEMOCRATS

3. John Edwards: Given the fact that he was running against the two biggest and best financed figures in the Democratic party, Edwards acquitted himself amazingly well in last night's Iowa caucuses. But, it's not quite enough. All along we've written and believed that Edwards only way to win the Democratic nomination began with a victory in Iowa. He lacks the financial and organizational reach that Clinton and Obama enjoy in New Hampshire and beyond and, without a win in one of these next few states, it's hard to see Edwards remaining relevant. One saving grace, however, may be the Clinton campaign. It serves their purposes to keep this a three-way race in New Hampshire in hopes that Edwards is able to siphon off enough support from Obama to give her a victory. (Previous ranking: 3)

2. Hillary Rodham Clinton: For the first time since we started the presidential Line, Clinton isn't in or tied for first place. Her third place finish -- albeit by a narrow margin -- is a sign that voters in Iowa simply did not respond to her message of experience. Clinton now has just four days to turn things around in the face of what is almost certain to be a massive Obama surge among Democrats and independents. New Hampshire has been more hospitable ground for the Clintons over the years (if she hasn't already, expect Clinton to begin to cite how New Hampshire made her husband the "comeback kid" in 1992) and their operation in the state is without peer. Still, all the organization in the world can't elect a candidate whose message simply does not fit the times. Voters went for change in a major way last night in Iowa and there is no way that Clinton can convince voters -- especially in a four-day sprint -- that she is a more effective change agent than Obama. She needs to hope that Iowa was, as her campaign is arguing, an anomaly in the broader fight for the Democratic nomination. (Previous ranking: 1)

1. Barack Obama: WOW. In the space of three years, Obama has gone from a member of the Illinois state Senate to the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. That rise -- as well as his victory last night in Iowa -- is a testament not only to his candidate skills, which are considerable, but also to the team of political professionals that he has put around him. With a win in Iowa now on his resume, the nominating calendar seems made to order for Obama to win the nomination. In New Hampshire, Independents make up a considerable bloc of voters and Obama is clearly their candidate of choice. in South Carolina, black voters carry significant sway in the Democratic primary and it's hard to imagine them not leaping at the chance to secure the nomination for Obama. Could this juggernaut be derailed? Absolutely. If Clinton can find a way to win New Hampshire -- and we rule out nothing when it comes to the political savvy of the Clintons -- this race will almost certainly become an extended battle between her and Obama. But, there is NO question of which candidate sits in the catbird's seat today. (Previous ranking: 2)

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 4, 2008; 11:33 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008 , The Line  
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