Happy Iowa Caucus Day everyone, who says the holidays are over just yet? Even as the day dawns on the most anticipated primary season ever, no one can say with any amount of certainty just who is going to come out of tonight's caucuses as winners and losers. But regardless of what happens tonight, we've already learned plenty about campaign 2008.
We've learned that Hillary Clinton is not the inevitable Democratic nominee. Not only has her air of invincibility been punctured on the cold plains of Iowa, there are even more troubling signs for the former First Lady. That she would face a formidable challenge from a primary opponent – particularly from Barack Obama, a rising political superstar selling revolutionary change – is not in and of itself surprising. It could even turn out to be a net positive should she eventually win the nomination, providing evidence of her claim that she is battle-tested enough to take on Republicans in the general election.
But the very fact that nearly two-thirds or more of her party appear poised to vote for another candidate in the caucuses has to concern the one-time prohibitive front-runner. Iowa was never positioned to be Clinton's best state, in part because of the process and in part because of her unfamiliarity with campaigning in the state. The unpopularity of the Iraq war among core activists combined with Obama's message of change and John Edwards' populist rhetoric has made it an even more uphill battle. It appears more and more that should Clinton end up with the nomination, it won't be by coronation.
We've learned that change is a tough sell. Even against a candidate with heavy establishment backing, Obama has enjoyed spectacular advantages. But star power and largely glowing press coverage hasn't been enough for Obama to break away from the pack in Iowa it appears. Should he win by a sizable margin, say 5 to 10 points, he may get the kind of momentum that will shoot him into New Hampshire, South Carolina and eventually the nomination. But a close 1-2-3 finish could well leave the race as undecided tomorrow as it is today.
Perhaps most instructive to future presidential hopefuls (presuming that Iowa retains its traditional place in the calendar), we've learned that doing things the old-fashioned way still pays off. All those campaigns that put in the time, energy and resources into building strong organizations in Iowa are likely to benefit, none more so perhaps than Edwards. He has retained a great deal of the support which thrust him into second place in the 2004 caucuses and expanded it. The work may well keep him in the race heading to New Hampshire. Mitt Romney, the only Republican with the money and strategy to build a traditional Iowa organization will benefit greatly should he win tonight, even by a slim margin.
And we've learned that Republicans are an unsatisfied bunch when it comes to their presidential choices. The GOP race has thus far been a flavor-of-the-month club. Rudy Giuliani was up, then down before Fred Thompson captured the party's imagination only to lose it by playing too cute and being too disinterested in the dirty business of actually campaigning. Romney surged, then faded before ticking up again in recent days. Mike Huckabee came from nowhere to lead the GOP field in Iowa but appears precariously close to losing his grasp on it. And John McCain went from front-runner to also-ran. Yet he is surging big-time in New Hampshire and could surprise in Iowa yet with a solid third-place showing. Hang tight, no telling what lessons are yet to come.
Better Late Night Than Never: With the late-night comedy shows off the air for the past two months, it should have been a relief for presidential candidates who would otherwise have been the butt of a great many unflattering jokes. It's been observed many times that more Americans are likely to get their news, or at least form their impressions of their leaders, from the late night monologues as from the news. So, with the writers on strike and the shows in re-runs, more control for the candidates over their images right?
Well, maybe they missed them terribly or perhaps it was just a bow to their eventual return or one more TV appearance but for whatever reason, they wasted no time in welcoming the shows back to the airwaves. On the first night back for David Letterman and Jay Leno, Clinton and Huckabee took time from their last-minute Iowa campaigns to pay homage. Clinton appeared in a taped opening for Letterman, noting that the host had been off the air for eight weeks before deadpanning, "Oh well, all good things come to an end."
Huckabee took the rare (and somewhat controversial) move of physically leaving Iowa to travel to California for a personal appearance on Leno's "Tonight Show." The move paid off as Huckabee got two valuable segments on the show and even joined the band to play bass guitar in a reminder of Bill Clinton's saxophone solo on Arsenio Hall's program in 1992. When asked what had fueled his rise in Iowa, Huckabee quipped, "People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with rather than the guy that laid them off."
Eleventh Hour Chicanery? Some apparent last-minute tactics are being used in the GOP race. The Des Moines Register reports some pastors supporting Mike Huckabee have begun receiving anonymous letters warning that becoming involved directly in the campaign could put the tax-exempt status of their churches in jeopardy. Rev. Brad Sherman, of Solid Rock Christian Church in Coralville Iowa said he's received two such letters. "I just laughed. No one lands in jail for this. Somebody is trying to intimidate Christians from getting involved," Sherman told the paper.
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