Six weeks out, Iowa remains hard to call

Dateline: 14 November 2007

In six weeks the people of Iowa – or rather a small percentage of them – will begin the process of selecting the next US President. Technically, of course, they will merely begin the process of choosing two candidates for the presidency, but the chances of the next president being someone other than the Republican or Democratic candidate seem extremely remote.

Hillary Clinton stands exactly where she did 12 months ago – the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination. John Edwards remains a distant but credible challenger. During 2007, Barack Obama surged ahead of Edwards to briefly threaten Clinton, but now the two are equal rivals for second place.

On the Republican side Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani are still – as they have been all along – frontrunners. They are no longer joined by John McCain and probably not by Fred Thompson. Mike Huckabee is certainly not alongside them, yet.

There could, of course, be further jockeying, before Iowa votes. Either Edwards or Obama could pull clearly ahead of the other and challenge Clinton’s dominance. Thompson or McCain could rejoin, or Huckabee could join, the top tier. Any of the three frontrunners could stumble. But with Thanksgiving and Christmas almost here it is likely that Iowa will do the first of the sifting.

Romney remains the Iowa favorite. Giuliani and McCain are not seriously contesting this state and hope that this will not matter. They need, though, to avoid embarrassment. Huckabee is betting everything on the hope that he can outperform expectations, and this will provide momentum for New Hampshire and South Carolina. Thompson is hoping that Huckabee will disappoint, which will allow him to claim the conservative mantle in the run up to voters in the south joining the fray.

Though the Democratic fight is much less open overall, in Iowa it remains more fluid. Clinton, Obama and Edwards remain fairly even. Obama and Edwards would like to give Clinton a bloody nose, but more than anything each hopes to eliminate the other. If one succeeds in this he can hope for a good second place in New Hampshire and a win in South Carolina. Again the south – much of which votes on February fifth (super Tuesday) – will be key. Edwards is a native son and Obama hopes to motivate Black voters – who comprise half of registered Democrats in most of the south. There is still an outside chance that a good score by Bill Richardson will enable him to win Nevada and then Florida. Though Democrats have decided to discount the Florida primary – because the state is voting too early – a win there by an outsider could position the bi-lingual governor of New Mexico well for the super-Tuesday vote in California.

One big question remains unanswered in both parties. Will the ultra-compressed timetable, with more states voting earlier than ever, enhance or diminish the importance of traditional early states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina? Mitt Romney, who is leading in both Iowa and New Hampshire, has bet his considerable fortune that it will enhance their role. If the early states establish a clear leader, that person might be unstoppable. John Edwards, with weak national polling but strength in Iowa and South Carolina hopes the same.

Clinton and Giuliani are long-term leaders in the national polls, and Giuliani is weak in the early states. They are hoping that there will be no time for an outsider to build momentum.

We will see.

Quentin Langley is editor of an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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