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Starting Gate: Anything Can Happen?

Is there a perfect storm brewing for political junkies who think they've seen almost every conceivable political drama over the past decade except a brokered political convention? The list is fairly long of major stories beginning with the 1992 elections and the most serious third-party presidential bid in the modern era and stretching through the dramatic GOP sweep in 1994; the impeachment of President Clinton and the contested 2000 election. Now a too-close-to-call nomination battle?

The chances remain slim, thanks to the nature of the primary calendar, but one of these races appears to be so wide open that nothing should be counted out – and it's not the one we thought it might be six months ago.

Once upon a time, at the dawn of this never-ending campaign, it appeared that the Democratic race would be the one destined to go the distance – or at least further than we've become accustomed to in recent cycles. Just the amount of money being raised and the pure level of excitement generated by the Democratic field looked to be setting up a protracted battle. Now it appears that Hillary Clinton has solidified her position as the front-runner and that either Barack Obama or John Edwards are likely to emerge to make it a two-person race that could be decided relatively early.

Not so for the GOP field which at the moment appears more wide open than ever. Just looking at some of the recent polling data, the following scenario does not seem out of the question:

  • Mitt Romney wins the Iowa caucuses (his lead there has slipped but he's run the traditional organizational effort to hold on).
  • Just days later, John McCain wins the New Hampshire primary (he's ticked up there in recent weeks and will probably focus on the state almost exclusively. If he can woo enough independents he could repeat his 2000 effort).
  • Romney wins in Michigan (a nice bump but not a traditional primary battleground this early).
  • Fred Thompson wins in South Carolina (conservatives coalesce and he's doing better here than any other early state).
  • Rudy Giuliani wins in Florida (one early state where he has been consistently ahead and a key to his strategy).

    Five primaries, four different winners, none with the kind of momentum to be take control of the race. Then comes February 5th when about 20 states will vote – large states, small states and states from every region of the country. The picture could be even more muddled if three or even four candidates go into that date with a chance to pick up some serious delegate numbers.

    Given the nature of the GOP's winner-take-all system in many states, it's still not likely that a brokered convention would be the outcome of all this chaos – and contests later on in states like Pennsylvania could certainly end up being decisive. But, for the moment at least, the GOP race seems wide open enough to say, what if? (See yesterday's live blog for analysis of yesterday's GOP debate).

    Self-Inflicted Wounds: According to the AP, DNC chairman Howard Dean was greeted with a handful of protestors when he visited Tallahassee, Florida to raise some money for the Democratic Party. Activists there are unhappy with the DNC's threats to yank the state's delegates from the national convention for the crime of moving up their primary date and the state party is suing the national party over the issue. Dean told the St. Petersburg Times, "Do I wish this fight weren't happening? Yes. At the end of the day, I think Iraq, health care, education and ethics matter far more than a fight between politicians."

    That's nothing compared to some of the bad press Democrats are getting in Michigan this morning after four presidential candidates pulled their names off of the state ballot over the same early-primary issue. Barack Obama, John Edwards, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson all asked to be removed from the ballot, Hillary Clinton will remain but don't look for her to campaign in the state.

    The Detroit Free Press editorializes: "The timing of Tuesday's Democratic primary collapse also couldn't be worse for Democrats, coming on the same day that the nine Republican hopefuls debated the serious economic issues facing Michigan. That contrast -- between engaging and ducking voters -- won't be lost on citizens here." And the Detroit News says: "Michigan matters. Some Democratic candidates don't seem to get that. They're making a big mistake."

    Any Day Now It seems that even some New Hampshire pols are getting itchy for Secretary of State William Gardner to pull the trigger on the state's primary date. New Hampshire Democratic chair Kathy Sullivan tells the AP, "If he makes the wrong decision, that's the end of the primary. If he makes the right decision, great, we're good for another four years." Gardner has long said that he will wait as long as he feels he needs to before setting the date (which he can also later change). Current betting is that he'll set the primary for January 8th but no one is ruling out the possibility that he could move to sometime in December.

    Around The Track

  • Gaffe Watch? This is getting a little attention. In yesterday's debate the candidates were asked whether the president needs congressional approval before potentially striking Iran's nuclear weapons facilities. Part of Romney's answer: "You know, we're going to let the lawyers sort out what he needed to do and what he didn't need to do." Lawyers? Will this one have legs?
  • Biden's plan to partition Iraq into separate regions gets good reviews in the Boston Globe this morning, but will his popular plan actually improve his presidential prospects? Globe columnist Scot Lehigh: "His rivals, Biden says, like to joke that they'd make him their secretary of state. Then he asks his listeners a pointed question: 'Are you ready to vote for anybody for president who's not capable of being secretary of state?' As Democrats evaluate their options for '08, that's a question worth pondering."
  • Stumping in New Hampshire yesterday, Obama said change may be all the rage but he's the only one who truly represents it: "I know change makes for good campaign rhetoric, but when these same people had the chance to make change happen, they didn't lead."
  • Romney heads to Colorado today where, as the Denver Post notes, he's gathered an impressive team but still has work to do.
  • Michelle Obama canceled an Iowa appearance yesterday after the van she was riding in was hit by a motorcyclist. The candidate's wife was not injured but the driver of the motorcycle was hospitalized.