Starting Gate: Predict The Unpredictable

It's closing time in Iowa and anyone who says they know who will emerge as winners eight days from now needs to be checked for post-eggnog distress syndrome. The easy part is identifying the candidates and reciting the messages they've woven over a year of speeches, debates and ads. Now comes the hard part – closing the sale among those voters who will show up at the caucuses on January 3rd.

About 1.5 million Iowans voted in the 2004 presidential election but the caucuses are expected to yield just a small fraction of that number. Most estimates peg Democratic turnout somewhere in the area of 120,000 to 150,000 while even fewer Republicans are expected to caucus – somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 according to projections. Finding those voters and getting them to locations spread throughout the state next week is the name of the game from here on out.

With such a small pool of likely voters there are a couple of things to keep in mind during this final push. First, forget about the polls. We're certain to see a flurry of new polls over the next week and those results will be breathlessly reported in the absence of any solid metrics by which to measure the state of the race. But pollsters, like campaigns, must also try to identify those voters who will actually participate in the caucus. And the campaigns are far more efficient at doing so.

Should turnout swell above the projections, the polls could be well wide of the mark in retrospect, especially if first-time caucus goers emerge in big numbers. All year, polls have come with the caveat that voters, especially in Iowa, are late deciders. Despite the seeming devotion and excitement candidates have engendered, it's no match for the kind of sober decisions we're told Iowans tend to make.

High turnout on the Democratic side should benefit Barack Obama, who has courted first-timers assiduously, particularly among college students. Lower turnout among Republicans would figure to aid Mike Huckabee, whose appeal to the close-knit Christian community in the state is thought to give him a reliable block of support.

If there is a wild-card in this race it could be the process itself. The amount of attention and importance placed on such a small number of people appears absurd to many of those columnists and pundits who decry the primacy of states like Iowa and New Hampshire. But don't overlook the seriousness of purpose that those 200,000 or so Iowans can bring with them. For them, both races appear to a contest pitting activists' hearts against their heads. Democrats may be inspired by Obama's personality or John Edwards' message but Clinton appears to be the safe, conventional choice to send into the general election. Republicans may find themselves feeling comfortable with Huckabee's conservative bona fides, but wonder if the insurgent survive the primary gauntlet that remains. In a race this tight and this intense, the only thing certain is surprise.

Are You Experienced? The New York Times takes a look at what sort of experience Clinton really gained while serving as First Lady for eight years in the 1990s in a withering take-down of one of the primary rationales she has put forward throughout the campaign. The Obama campaign couldn't have written it much better for their porposes. Here's a peak: "During those two terms in the White House, Mrs. Clinton did not hold a security clearance. She did not attend National Security Council meetings. She was not given a copy of the president's daily intelligence briefing. She did not assert herself on the crises in Somalia, Haiti and Rwanda. And during one of President Bill Clinton's major tests on terrorism, whether to bomb Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998, Mrs. Clinton was barely speaking to her husband, let alone advising him, as the Lewinsky scandal sizzled."
Meanwhile, Clinton will begin a major push in Iowa alongside former Gov. Tom Vilsack, his popular wife Christie and, of course, Bill Clinton. And in a campaign memo this morning, the campaign signals they're sticking with their central argument in the final days. "As Iowans prepare to gather to pick a President on January 3rd," the memo begins, "one central question should be on their minds: 'Who would be the best president?'"

Stop Lying About His Record: Bob Dole, the former Senate Majority Leader and 1996 GOP presidential nominee has had his share of problems with Republicans named Bush. After losing the New Hampshire primary in 1988 to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, Dole was asked what he would say to his then-GOP opponent and he growled, "tell him to stop lying about my record." But he's coming to the defense of the current president, sending a missive to Mike Huckabee admonishing him for criticizing the administration's foreign policy.

As Iowa political sage David Yepsen reveals, Dole has sent a letter to Huckabee, asking: "Why have you joined the 'Bush bashers?' I know Iowans fairly well and doubt those attending Republican caucuses will appreciate your critical comments." In a statement, Huckabee responded: "I was on Senator Dole's national steering committee and I love the man. I'm not sure he read the article or just news accounts of it, but the policies under Secretary Rumsfeld did not heed the advice of the general officers as to the level of troops needed and the resources needed for success. Since Secretary Gates has taken the helm, there is much more cooperation with Congress and open discussions with general officers."

Around The Track

  • Even John McCain, who remains a long-shot at best in Iowa, will return to the state this week for some last-minute campaigning as his fortunes rise in New Hampshire. But Rudy Giuliani kicks off his post-Christmas tour in – Florida.
  • Giuliani told reporters Monday that his doctor will be issuing a full report on his health after the former New York City mayor was checked into a hospital last week for flu-like symptoms. But to put an end to some of the speculation, Giuliani sought to assure voters that he is "perfectly healthy." Giuliani's 2000 senate bid came to an end when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer but the mayor insisted he's been given a clean bill of health. "I don't have cancer," he said.
  • Peaking ahead to the night of January 3rd, the weather forecast is relatively mild for Iowa this time of year. According to, it should be cloudy with a low of 20 degrees that night.
  • Huckabee and John McCain are combining for a one-two punch at Mitt Romney in New Hampshire – at least for now.
  • It had to happen – an anthem protesting the Iowa caucuses. Check it out in full at the Des Moines Register Web site, here's a sample: "You say that it's cold here but the people are warm. You ask us to caucus, and drive through a storm. You ask us to rally, and hold up a sign. You ask us to bring our friends and volunteer time. Get out of our town. Get out of my face. You barged into our home, your political race."