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Keeping A Hawkeye On Obama

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., right, listens to New York Times columnist Bob Herbert while participating in a forum held to discuss his new book, "The Audacity of Hope," at the John F. Kennedy Library, in Boston, Oct. 20, 2006. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
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By CBS Evening News producer Ward Sloane

It's official. The 2008 Iowa caucuses' sweepstakes have started. That's because Des Moines Register political reporter Thomas Beaumont wrote an article last weekend about Sen. Barack Obama.

Beaumont reported that the first-term senator from Illinois has put out feelers to Democratic Party activists. Obama talked to John Norris, a Des Moines Democrat who engineered John Kerry's come-from-behind victory in 2004. Norris said Obama "truly wanted to know what he had to do and when he had to do it," in order to compete in Iowa.

One activist said that if Obama were to compete in Iowa, it would be the most exciting campaign since Gary Hart ran his insurgent campaign against Walter Mondale in 1984. But the issue is: Can Obama win there?

"He's such a phenomenon — he came out of nowhere, it seems anything is possible," said Democrat George Appleby, also of Des Moines.

Of course, there is also the race issue at hand — namely whether an African American could win a statewide election in Iowa. Seasoned politicians in the Hawkeye State say yes, and it's all in the math.

In this year's Democratic gubernatorial primary, liberal Ed Fallon got 26 percent of the vote. This is a good base for Obama. Add the fact that Iowa Democrats will have one of their own in the race, outgoing two-term Gov. Tom Vilsack, who is expected to win the caucuses outright. Then add spirited campaigns by Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and 2004 presidential hopeful John Edwards. Mix in a dash of Al Gore and/or a pinch of retired Gen. Wesley Clark and perhaps a tablespoon of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Suddenly, 20 or 25 percent could easily be enough for a first- or second-place finish.

"A candidate who comes in second could well be considered the 'relative winner' against a native son," said one Democrat.

Of course, coming in second would be easier for Obama if the other Big Name Democrat decided not to run or — heresy — decided to bypass Iowa. That Big Name, of course, is Hillary Clinton. Big-time Iowans say that so far, she hasn't contacted anyone in the state about 2008.

"Why should she run here? She runs the risk of losing to Vilsack, and if you're Hillary Clinton, you can't afford to lose to anyone," said one activist. "She'd be better off saying that Tom Vilsack is a good man, he deserves the support of his home state and then she can double her time" in New Hampshire and Nevada and South Carolina (the next three states on the 2008 calendar).

So, there's a whole lot of thinking going around this holiday season. And that's true for Republicans as well. On Monday they announced the date of their straw poll — Aug. 11, 2007, in Ames, Iowa. A guy named George W. Bush won the last one, in August 1999.

Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said the only person who knows when the senator will make a decision is Obama himself. As for Sen. Clinton, a spokesman says she has not made up her mind whether to run for President and has not, in fact, been in contact with anyone in Iowa about the caucuses.

By Ward Sloane