The Iowa storyline has been defined for months by the consistent lead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
But that narrative is no more.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has demonstrated that with little money, little establishment support, and no celebrity, a long-shot still has a shot — and in Huckabee’s case, a good shot.
Meanwhile, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has proven he has a second act.
A poll by the Des Moines Register released Sunday showed Obama with 28 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers’ support, a lead of three points over Clinton.
That marks a downtick of four points for Clinton since the last Register poll, in early October, and a six-point upswing for Obama.
But it is Huckabee who is fast becoming the most probable Cinderella story of the 2008 race, if any of the challengers end up overtaking the leaders.
Obama has been in a tight three-way contest with Clinton and former North Carolina senator John Edwards in Iowa for months.
But Romney’s Iowa lead had been untouchable since the end of summer.
He led every one of the 23 Iowa polls taken between July 26 and Nov. 14, often by double-digit margins.
But Huckabee has narrowly won two of the last five polls, including by five percentage points in the Register poll released Sunday.
Huckabee leads with 29 percent of the support of likely Iowa Republican caucusgoers, the Register found. That marked a surge of 17 points since the Register’s last Iowa poll in early October.
Huckabee’s ascendancy in Iowa appears to be mostly due to the support of self-identified born-again Christians. Romney held a five-point lead over Huckabee among social conservatives in Iowa in October. Huckabee now wins their support by 15 points.
Romney’s downturn in the Iowa polls, as well Christian conservative support for Huckabee statewide, may have prompted the Mormon candidate to give a long-discussed speech Thursday on “faith in America,” mimicking John F. Kennedy’s pivotal 1960 speech to ease Protestant concerns about the Catholic candidate.
“The religion speech is a clear sign the Romney folks are worried that it is getting very close in Iowa,” said David Redlawsk, a University of Iowa political scientist.
The Romney and Huckabee campaigns are fighting to spin the Huckabee surge their way.
Huckabee’s campaign intends to highlight that their upswing has come despite being cash poor for the bulk of the race.
Romney's campaign allocated $1.5 million to Iowa in the third quarter, while all the other GOP candidates combined spent less than a million in Iowa from July to September.
“We’ve spent a couple hundred thousand dollars in Iowa, he’s spent millions. He’s got more staff in Iowa than we have around the country,” said Chip Saltsman, Huckabee’s campaign manager.
Saltsman added that “it’s very exciting” that they are now challenging Romney for Iowa but cautioned “we are going to get outspent” in the month ahead.
To achieve victory, Huckabee’s campaign plans not to go on the offensive against Romney, said Saltsman. They are betting that their “slow and steady campaign,” in Saltsman’s words, can win the caucuses by presenting a message that Huckabee is the true conservative, but “not mad at anybody,” in the candidate’s words.
Romney’s campaign’s gamble on Iowa and New Hampshire to spring his candidacy into a juggernaut is clearly troubled by the recent Huckabee upturn. But Romney strategist Russ Schriefer is quick to point out that, “Iowa generally is close” and they are “perfectly comfortable with where are support is at.
“Wat [Huckabee] did is he took the Brownback numbers, Thompson numbers, and the Gingrich numbers and now they are in the Huckabee’s column,” Schriefer added. But we’ve got 30 days and we are going to work our little hearts out.”
Romney remains a candidate not to be discounted. His Iowa field apparatus dwarfs any other Republican contender. And in a state where perhaps only 100,000 Republicans may decide the victor of Iowa, a campaign’s ability to turn out supporters, for a caucus which will likely last more than an hour, is not to be underestimated.
Huckabee’s newfound position may come with its own problem. Did he peak too soon?
“In some ways this Register poll is a double-edged sword for Huckabee,” Redlawsk said.
Prior to this week political world was near uniform in the analysis that should Huckabee place second in Iowa he would surpass expectations and carry that momentum to New Hampshire and South Carolina. But now Huckabee may have to contend with the expectation of victory itself.
In the Democratic field, Obama may face a similar challenge.
He now leads Clinton in the key first contest of the 2008 primary calendar.
Clinton held the lead in 15 of 16 statewide Iowa polls between Aug. 26 and Nov. 12, but in the five most recent polls, Obama has tied one and won two -- and his two best results came in the most recent surveys.
Obama’s rise since October is due to Clinton’s loss of two vital blocs of Iowa Democrats, organized labor and women.
Clinton has declined from 34 to 21 percent support from union household members, but it's the drop in Clinton’s support among women that will likely trouble her campaign most.
Clinton chief strategist Mark Penn has openly stated that Clinton’s campaign is focusing on women to win her the nomination and presidency. Six in 10 Democratic caucusgoers are likely to be women.
Obama has now surged to 31 percent support among women and Clinton has dropped to 26 percent. It is the most vivid indication yet that Clinton’s presumed lock on the women's vote has been breached.
The lead with Iowa women is “encouraging,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s senior political adviser.
“It is too glib to think that women are going to vote only the basis of gender. Just like it demeans African-Americans to think they are going to vote only on race.”
But women’s support for the first serious female presidential contender has been the keystone to Clinton’s frontrunner status.
An Obama victory in Iowa, however, remains uncertain. He has the most support among young caucusgoers, but at least half of Iowa caucusgoers are seniors.
Meanwhile, Edwards has the most support from those who have caucused before. The Iowa Democratic contest remains a three-person race -- and an especially pivotal one, since, should Clinton win Iowa, it remains likely she will run the table in the Democratic race.
But no matter who comes out on top in the Hawkeye state, Tom Harkin in 1992 and George H.W. Bush in 1980 both demonstrated that you can win Iowa and lose the nomination.