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The Friday Line: Uncertainty Reigns

We're four states into the 2008 presidential election and we're less certain about who the party nominees might be than we were before the voting began. It seems the more ballots that are cast, the more muddied the picture grows.

After Iowa, it looked like voters were ready for new blood, as fresh faces -- Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former governor Mike Huckabee (Ark.) -- claimed wider-than-expected wins. But then came New Hampshire and a vote for old favorites -- Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and John McCain (Ariz.).

2008 Presidential Candidates

Michigan Republicans only added to the chaos by handing victory to former governor Mitt Romney (Mass.). Michigan didn't do us any favors on the Democratic side either as sanctions by the Democratic National Committee rendered the state's primary virtually meaningless.

And so we head into Nevada's caucuses and South Carolina's Republican primary on Saturday acutely aware of how much we don't know. The key thing to remember ahead of both of these contests -- as well as next week's South Carolina Democratic primary -- is that the nomination fights have both turned into a battle for delegates. No single state's vote is going to end the race or give any candidate all that much momentum. The contest will likely extend until at least Feb. 5, when 24 states vote and a huge chunk of both parties' delegates are at stake.

We're keeping close track of the delegate fight here at washingtonpost.com with our delegate leaderboard -- be sure to bookmark it. It's a regularly updated scorecard showing the top three candidates in each party.

Now on to the line. The candidates are ranked by their current likelihood to win their respective party nods. The number-one ranked candidate is seen as the front-runner -- if there is such a thing in this election. Agree or disagree? The comments section is open for business.

And, for those of you clamoring for the latest Fix lines on the House and Senate, come back later in the day. Hope that whets your political appetite!

REPUBLICANS

5. Fred Thompson: Thompson's entire campaign comes down to tomorrow's vote in South Carolina and, if the new MSNBC/McClatchy survey is right, he is in very deep trouble. In theory Thompson's message of consistent conservatism coupled with his southern accent should make him appealing to voters in the Palmetto State, but in practice it appears he isn't getting a serious look. Assuming Thompson doesn't finish in the top two, it's hard to see how he continues on. Since Thompson's stomach for the race has been in question ever since he first announced, it's almost unimaginable that he would stay in a race he doesn't think he can win. (Previous ranking: 5)

3. (tie) Rudy Giuliani: As we noted earlier this week, the rumors of Giuliani's demise are greatly overstated. The chaos in the field plays right into Giuliani's hands -- IF he can win Florida. That, of course, is a tall order. But Giuliani's entire senior staff is all but living in the Sunshine State between now and the Jan. 29 primary and polls show he is still in the game. If Giuliani wins Florida, it's easy to see him taking a nice bump into Feb.5 when strongholds like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut will be voting. If he loses Florida, his campaign is almost certainly over. We know some Giuliani allies believe that a close second-place finish could give him the required momentum going into Feb. 5, but it's hard to imagine that he'd really have enough juice to carry on. (Previous ranking: 4)

3. (tie) Mike Huckabee: Tomorrow's results in South Carolina will go a long way toward answering the question of whether Huckabee is a one-state sensation or a legitimate contender for the Republican nomination. The new MSNBC/McClatchy poll suggests it is a two-way race in the Palmetto State between Huckabee and McCain. The former Arkansas governor's problem is that he is competing for socially conservative voters with Thompson and Romney, while McCain is generally unrivaled as he seeks to rally fiscal conservatives and moderates. A win in South Carolina could -- once again -- make Huckabee THE story, giving him the attention and momentum that could make up for his fundraising and organizational shortcomings. A loss in South Carolina could make him the leading vice presidential pick -- not exactly a bad outcome either. (Previous ranking: 3)

2. Mitt Romney: Give this to Matinee Mitt: he performed when the bright lights were on. After consecutive losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, anything short of victory in Tuesday's Michigan primary would likely have led to his exit from the contest. And, for all the talk that Romney "should" have won Michigan because of his ties to the state, we say "baloney." A win is a win is a win. Romney's victory in Michigan takes the pressure off of him to deliver a win in either South Carolina or Nevada -- although our guess is he will win the Silver State caucuses. Regardless of the results tomorrow, Romney has a ticket to Florida and Feb. 5. And with his enormous personal wealth he may be the ONLY candidate on the Republican side who can run something close to a full campaign in the 22 states set to vote on the first Tuesday in February. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. John McCain: A win in Michigan would have made us a lot more comfortable about keeping McCain in the pole position. His loss, which seemed to re-affirm his struggle to win primaries and caucuses that are dominated by Republicans, should be worrisome to his campaign -- evoking bad memories of his loss in 2000. Still, it's easier to make a case for McCain winning the nomination than it is for any of his rivals. McCain has to be considered the favorite tomorrow in South Carolina and if he wins there he should make a strong showing in Florida on Jan. 29. It's not clear whether McCain has the resources to compete in the Feb. 5 states -- especially if he wins neither South Carolina nor Florida. He's clearly a weaker frontrunner than he was even a week ago but he remains the (slight) frontrunner nonetheless. (Previous ranking: 1)

DEMOCRATS

3. John Edwards: While the focus tomorrow will be on Obama and Clinton, Edwards may have the most to gain or lose. Edwards continues to insist the Democratic race is a three-way contest and has switched from attacking Clinton alone to criticizing BOTH Obama and Clinton as flawed candidates who could cost Democrats the White House. That rhetoric is all well and good but if he can't crack the top two -- or at least come close -- the road ahead becomes much, much more difficult for Edwards. The MSNBC/McClatchy survey shows Edwards in a distant third place in South Carolina, affirming past polls that show the Palmetto State as a two-person contest. Edwards has pledged to stay in the race through the convention, but could he truly compete after losing South Carolina? (Previous ranking: 3)

1. (tie) Barack Obama: Winning New Hampshire might have locked up the primary nomination for Obama but losing there hasn't damaged the Illinois Senator the way some predicted it might. Over the past ten days, Obama has racked up a number of high-profile endorsements from the likes of Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and Patrick Leahy (Vt.) as well as Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. Now, endorsements don't equal a victory, but they prove that the establishment of the party is split between Obama and Clinton. With the race certain now to extend to Feb. 5, it is Obama who starts with the early lead -- organizationally -- over Clinton in many of these states. And, with several southern states with large black populations -- Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee -- and Obama's home state of Illinois voting that day, he'll likely have a solid delegate foundation no matter his ups and down between now and then. (Previous ranking: Tie for 1)

1. (tie) Hillary Rodham Clinton: While the Clinton campaign (rightly) notes that the race is now a delegate fight rather than a series of single-state contests, a win in Nevada would be a nice insurance policy against Obama's expected triumph in South Carolina one week later. Even if she loses both states, Clinton, like Obama, enters Feb. 5 in relatively strong shape with New York, Arkansas, New Jersey and Connecticut all looking strong for her. Clinton also went on-air in California late Thursday, a sign that she is ready to fight hard for the crown jewel of delegates available on Feb. 5. (Obama beat Clinton to the California airwaves by five days.) Since her win in New Hampshire, Clinton has sharpened her campaign message nicely -- focusing heavily on her ability to bring about change and contrasting that with Obama's alleged lack of results in public office. Winning New Hampshire bought Clinton time to make just this sort of case against Obama. The question now is whether Democratic voters are buying what she is selling. (Previous ranking: Tie for 1)

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 18, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Line  
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Next: The Line: Don't Forget Congress!

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