Heading into a very brief break for the Christmas season, here are some dynamics worth watching, an extended look around the track:
Hillary v. Obama: After a short break for some image improvement, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are throwing down again. Clinton and her campaign have latched onto the number of "present" votes Obama made while in the Illinois State Senate, working it into her stump speech as an indication that Obama lacks principles, or at the very least looks like a politician. Clinton has also compared Obama's foreign policy experience to that President Bush had when he took office. Obama says Clinton is too unpopular to be elected president and compares himself to Bill Clinton in 1992. John Edwards: He finished a strong second in Iowa in 2004 and spent enough time building an organization there to remain a strong threat to win the whole thing this time around, despite facing two celebrity candidates. No doubt Edwards has seen something of a surge in Iowa, at least in campaign buzz, and remains within striking distance in the polls. Could the Clinton-Obama bickering allow him to slip in and take Iowa or is he peaking just a tad early? Mitt Romney: He's closed the gap slightly with Mike Huckabee in Iowa but still looks like a shaky bet to win on Jan. 3rd. Romney has the money to flood the airwaves and the organizational muscle to make a push but events could hamper that. Stories like the one yesterday – where he admitted he hadn't actually seen his father march in a civil rights march with Martin Luther King – aren't going to help soothe doubts about his authenticity. Mike Huckabee: Cost of being the front-runner -- Priceless. Huckabee has been under fierce attack and scrutiny from Romney and the media since his poll numbers began to skyrocket last month. The drip, drip, drip of trying to fend off one story or charge after another has left him complaining that "everything kitchen sink is being thrown at me." But he's weathered the storm with the same calm demeanor he's shown throughout the campaign and still looks like the man to beat on the GOP side in Iowa. Can he extend his surge beyond Jan. 3rd and make a final push in Iowa at the same time? John McCain: He's this month's Huckabee. Polls in New Hampshire show him in a dead heat for first place with Romney and the endorsements keep rolling in. Breaking what the paper calls a "decades old tradition" of endorsing a candidate in each party during the primary process, the Boston Herald's editorial board is backing only McCain this time around. But a core of the Republican Party in conservative states like Iowa and South Carolina haven't warmed to him and the campaign appears to be braced for a controversial New York Times story to drop (or not). A win for McCain in New Hampshire may not get him the kind of momentum to win the nomination but it could muddle the race enough for him to sneak in. The Calendar: The fact is, nobody knows what will happen in this calendar. Iowa takes place just two days after New Years when vacations are just ending and many of those much sought-after college students are still on break. New Hampshire votes just five days later. That's not much time for a surprise Iowa winner to capitalize and even less time for disappointing performers to recover. A firewall can be built over time, as Clinton has tried to do there, but it can be broken down in days. The Others: In 2004, some campaigns reportedly entered into a caucus agreement in which supporters of one campaign would join forces with another if they could not muster the 15 percent threshold to be viable in individual caucuses. Will we see any similar deals this time around? Candidates like Chris Dodd, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson have been careful not to be overly critical of Clinton throughout this campaign. If Fred Thompson finishes way down the line in Iowa, would it mean the end of his campaign? Would he throw his support to his old friend, John McCain? Still, with New Hampshire coming so soon after Iowa, we may not see anyone drop out on Jan. 4th. Ron Paul: The question doesn't seem to be whether Paul will get some measurable level of support in Iowa, and especially New Hampshire, but whether those who vote for him come at the expense of another candidate. Paul has attracted a very loyal and dedicated group of supporters but antidotal evidence suggests these are people who may be in the process for him and nobody else. If he does peel away independent-minded voters in New Hampshire though, it may be McCain who feels the drain. Excitement: Far more Democrats than Republicans are expected to caucus in Iowa and the enthusiasm factor is higher for the party out of power. New caucus goers could yield some surprising results among Democrats while low turnout makes that more unlikely for the GOP. More interestingly, which race will those independent voters – who make up a third of the state's electorate, be attracted to? The Unknown: Tensions are high in the closing days for a reason – anything could still happen to upset the best-laid plans. Will it be a media report that knocks a candidate off-stride or an attention-getting ad that becomes the dominant story in the final stretch? Or will it be push-polls, church fliers, e-mail campaigns, Web attacks and whispering campaigns that shake things up? Once thing is certain, starting December 26th, the pause button on the campaign will be released. Rest up. In the spirit of the season, Horserace will be taking some time off. Next Starting Gate: 12/26.