Starting Gate: Ten, Nine, Eight …

(AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
The countdown to 2008 is nearly complete and while the rest of the nation prepares to usher in the New Year, Iowans will spend four more days digging out from a blizzard of candidate appearances, ads and political mailings. Just as those resolutions we'll all be pledging tomorrow, however, Iowa isn't won in a day – or week.

Thursday evening will show whether long-held beliefs about campaigning in the first-in-the-nation state still hold up or whether the rules of the game have changed. Iowa is supposed to be about organization, organization, organization. Those candidates who put in the time and money are supposed to be rewarded in the caucuses. Unlike primaries where voters cast their ballots throughout the day, caucus wins depend on capturing a majority of the relatively small number of participants who turn out.

If organization and attention to the process are still deciding factors, Thursday should be a relatively good night for Mitt Romney and John Edwards. Since finishing a surprising second in the 2004 caucuses, Edwards has paid close attention to his organization in the state and it could pay off. According to a McClatchy/MSNBC poll released yesterday, the former vice presidential nominee leads Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama by ten points when "second choice" preferences are factored in.

But Edwards hasn't had the field to himself. Both Obama and Clinton have built solid organizations in the state and have the kind of financial muscle to flex that Edwards does not have. For Democrats, Iowa is ground zero, with each and every candidate placing heavy emphasis there. It's where Clinton first rolled out her husband and where Obama first sent Oprah. In such a tightly contested battle, don't be surprised if the results are equally tight, with just a few percentage points separating first from third place.

Romney's situation is much more precarious and he potentially has far more to lose – or gain – than any of the Democratic candidates. Of all the Republicans, only Romney has run what could be described as a traditional Iowa campaign. He's spent the money and the time that usually pays off. While Rudy Giuliani and John McCain have paid lip service to the caucuses, Romney has done it by the book.

Mike Huckabee's rise among social conservatives in Iowa has him leading in nearly every poll in recent weeks but his organization is much looser, relying on networks of evangelical activists and home-schooling advocates. Those voters can be a powerful force in Iowa, especially when motivated as they appear to be for Huckabee. But it's not the kind of organization that is easily controlled or predicted. Huckabee now has the expectations game to compete with as well. Anything less than a victory will be seen as a blow to his candidacy while even a close second would allow Romney to proclaim some measure of success. We'll soon know whether all that work in May and June still pays in Iowa.

Can't We All Just Get Along? New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is at it again. With media reports breathlessly hanging on any whisper to come out of the mayor's political circle, today brings yet another story hyping his potential third-party bid. According to a report in the Washington Post, Bloomberg will attend a "bipartisan" meeting of political leaders next week in Oklahoma to discuss the viability of an independent bid.
The group is made up of former office-holders who at one time either ran failed bids for the White House or were widely touted as candidates – Gary Hart, Sam Nunn, Chuck Hagel (who is retiring from the Senate this year), Chuck Robb, Bob Graham and Christie Todd Whitman, to name a few.

A letter to participants, according to the Post, lays out the purpose of the meeting. "Our political system is, at the least, badly bent and many are concluding that it is broken at a time where America must lead boldly at home and abroad. Partisan polarization is preventing us from uniting to meet the challenges that we must face if we are to prevent further erosion in America's power of leadership and example. … Today, we are a house divided. We believe that the next president must be able to call for a unity of effort by choosing the best talent available -- without regard to political party -- to help lead our nation."

The aspirations of Bloomberg have been followed closely for the past year. Despite public statements that he has no plans to run as an Independent candidate for president, his staff has laid out exact plans for the press on many occasions. A billionaire businessman who has in the past indicated his future lies in philanthropy could easily spend that money on a campaign instead.

Less clear is a real public appetite or broad consensus on which to base an independent candidacy. While polls have indicated a level of unhappiness among Republican rank-and-file about their choices for a nominee, Democrats have said they are well-satisfied with their field. And a CBS News poll earlier this month showed that more voters are paying attention to the presidential campaign now than at this point in any campaign since 1987. Seventy-six percent of registered voters said they are paying some or a lot of attention to the campaign, compared to 61 percent four years ago. The candidates have also raised record-amounts of money, much of it from small donors online, an indication that voters are speaking with their wallets as much as their ballots.

Billions of dollars can buy a lot of television ads but can it bridge the very real differences that exist on public policy? A candidacy based on ridding the political system of "partisan polarization" must develop solutions to issues such as what to do with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. and how to end the nation's presence in Iraq in ways that would presumably satisfy everyone or risk further divisions. It will be interesting to hear how those who attend this upcoming meeting propose to do all that.

Your Caucus Cheat-Sheet: Several campaigns have produced elaborate videos to help guide first-time caucus goers in an attempt to demystify the process. Different rules for both parties and discussion of things like "viability" and "second choice" can be confusing. To help out, Kathy Frankovic, director of the CBS News surveys, has put together a handy primer to help guide non-Iowans through caucus night. Bookmark it for quick reference on Thursday.

Around The Track

  • Chelsea Clinton is sticking to campaign discipline while on the trail with her mother. The campaign has made it clear to reporters that the former First Daughter is off-limits when it comes to questioning – a rule that applies to kid reporters too, according to the AP. When asked a question about her father's potential place in a Clinton administration by a 9-year old "reporter" for Scholastic News, Chelsea Clinton responded, ""I'm sorry, I don't talk to the press and that applies to you, unfortunately. Even though I think you're cute."
  • While all eyes are on Iowa, John McCain ramps up his efforts in New Hampshire where he continues to climb. A "Google, goodies and 'angels'" are how the Clinton campaign is targeting women voters for Thursday night in what may well part of the most sophisticated targeting efforts by all the campaigns in political history.