The Races Tighten Up

In my U.S. News column this week, I take a look at the monkey wrenches Iowa voters (or those classified in polls as likely caucusgoers) are throwing into the two parties' presidential races. Since the column went to press Friday, there have been a couple more Iowa wrinkles. In the Democratic race, the Des Moines Register poll shows Barack Obama ahead of Hillary Clinton 28 to 25 percent, with John Edwards at 23 percent, while in the Republican race the poll has Mike Huckabee ahead of Mitt Romney 29 to 24 percent, with 13 for Rudy Giuliani, 9 for Fred Thompson, and 7 each for John McCain and Ron Paul.

The two candidates who seem to have been overtaken in Iowa--and I use the word seem advisedly, for Iowa polls are especially problematical, because you're trying to limit the poll to the 5 percent or so of the electorate that will actually show up at caucus sites on a Thursday night--are responding, or perhaps panicking. Here's Anne Kornblut's Washington Post account of Hillary Clinton's response. Sunday, in a dramatic shift, she made it clear that her goal is to challenge Obama not just on policy but also on one of his strongest selling points: his reputation for honesty.

"There's a big difference between our courage and our convictions, what we believe and what we're willing to fight for," Clinton told reporters here. She said voters in Iowa will have a choice "between someone who talks the talk and somebody who's walked the walk."

Asked directly whether she intended to raise questions about Obama's character, she replied: "It's beginning to look a lot like that."

In a multicandidate race, it's always risky for one candidate to launch a character attack on another: You might hurt your target, but you can also hurt yourself, with the benefit going to a third candidate. Clinton evidently regards Obama as a bigger threat than John Edwards--I think for good reason. The thinking is this: Even if Edwards wins in Iowa, he might not get much benefit in New Hampshire, where he finished a poor fourth, with 12 percent, in 2004, after finishing a strong second in Iowa, and where this year he has not run over 17 percent since May. Obama's upside in New Hampshire, on this theory, is much higher: It has a lot of upscale Democratic voters, who seem to be Obama's natural constituency. And if Obama wins in both Iowa and New Hampshire, will Clinton's support elsewhere evaporate? No one knows, but evidently the Clinton people are willing to take the risky step of making negative character attacks in order to avoid facing that possibility. Interesting.

Interesting, too, is the fact that Mitt Romney has decided to give a speech this week on his Mormon faith.

Kevin Madden, a Romney spokesman, said yesterday that Romney would give the speech titled "Faith in America" on Thursday at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas.

"This speech is an opportunity for Governor Romney to share his views on religious liberty, the grand tradition religious tolerance has played in the progress of our nation, and how the governor's own faith would inform his presidency if he were elected," Madden said in a statement. "Governor Romney understands that faith is an important issue to many Americans, and he personally feels this moment is the right moment for him to share his views with the nation."

Romney's campaign has long pondered whether he should give such a speech; the word has been that the candidate didn't want to. But evidently the fact that Huckabee, a graduate of Ouachita Baptist College, has passed him in some Iowa polls changed the candidate's mind. Most of Huckabee's voters in Iowa (two thirds of them, according to the ABC/Washington Post poll) are evangelical Christians, many of whom are said to regard the Mormon church as an un-Christian cult. I would assume that Romney will avoid the specifics of Mormon rligious doctrine and stress what his beliefs have in common with those of other Christians, but I'm not sure that he will make the argument, as John Kennedy did before the Baptist ministers in Houston in September 1960, that his personal religion will not affect public acts. Romney and many other candidates (including Democrats like Clinton) have argued that their public philosophy is shaped, in part, by their religious convictions.

Are the Clinton and Romney campaigns panicking? You can argue that each of them is. At the least they're taking some impressive risks. Which suggests that their internal polling and organizational soundings are in line with the public polls.

By Michael Barone