I hate to say I told you so, but it's just too fun not to say it.
Last week in this space, I expressed bewilderment at the notion, peddled by most of the nation's political writers, that Howard Dean had escaped the big Iowa debate unscathed. He had performed badly and his rivals had raised all kinds of troubling issues that probably came as news to many potential Iowa voters. There was every reason to believe he was entering choppy waters.
That debate marked the beginning of the great crisis for the Dean campaign. Tracking polls show him on the way down in Iowa as Dick Gephardt remains stable, John Kerry is charging and John Edwards shows unexpected strength. In New Hampshire, his 20- to 30-point lead is now down to five points, with Wesley Clark chomping at his heels.
So what happens now? There are any number of possible outcomes.
For another candidate to take the nomination away from Dean, his meltdown will have to continue. His rivals need Dean to lose Iowa next week (it doesn't matter to whom) and then eight days later lose New Hampshire or win by only a small (two-to-four-point) margin.
Then the race will crack open and it will be anybody's game.
How Clark wins: Gen. Wesley Clark either wins New Hampshire outright or loses it to Dean by fewer than four points. At this point, he becomes the golden boy of American politics. Bill Clinton comes out from the shadows and openly endorses Clark. The next big primary is Feb. 3 in South Carolina. Clark surges there and either wins it or comes in second. (He could even come in third if Al Sharpton manages to score an electorally meaningless, but utterly disgusting, second place there).
On Feb. 10, Virginia and Tennessee go Clark's way and he cruises along confidently until March 2. That's Super Tuesday, when Democratic voters in California and New York and a bunch of other big states make their selection. He scores big and he's the nominee.
How Clark loses: The politically inexperienced general repeatedly steps on his own very large and very awkward tongue. Other candidates force Clark to deal publicly with the fact that almost every major military figure who worked over, alongside or under him during the 1990s believes the former general is unfit for the presidency. That's a hard critique to overcome.
How Gephardt wins: Even though John Kerry is now surging in Iowa, he fades in the stretch and the caucus goes for Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. Gephardt then skips New Hampshire and goes all out in South Carolina on Feb. 3. He wins or comes in second (or third, because of Sharpton). Then he wins either Virginia or Tennessee the next week. Suddenly, he's the hot guy to beat, especially since he is the candidate best situated to attack Bush on the president's one glaring difficulty: The lack of job creation.
Using the jobs issue, Gephardt becomes the big winner on Super Tuesday, and takes the prize.
How Gephardt loses: It's all over for him if he doesn't win Iowa.
How Edwards wins: Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina places third in Iowa and wins at least 15 percent in New Hampshire. Then he has to win South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee so that it's clear he is the Southern Democrat who can run the way Clinton ran. From there, he's the party's star, and as a relative moderate can really make a strong stand on Super Tuesday.
How Edwards loses: He comes in fourth in Iowa, which means that even the endorsement of the state's biggest newspaper didn't help him. And even if he does better in Iowa, he'll be toast unless he wins South Carolina.
How Kerry wins: Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts wins Iowa, and suddenly surges in New Hampshire, finishing second or first. He doesn't aim his resources at South Carolina, instead keeping his powder dry for Super Tuesday.
How Kerry loses: He can only reignite his campaign with a surprise Iowa win. If he loses, even by a small margin, he's done for.
How Lieberman wins: He doesn't (though if the race is very confused, he could win either New York or California).
Despite his troubles, Howard Dean still has to be counted the favorite for the nomination. Dean has the most money, he has the most ardent support and he's certainly interesting to watch. Every one of his rivals has deep problems of his own, and if they move forward those problems in connecting with voters will come to the fore as well.
But by the end, Dean will have been very bruised and battered by the months of relentless assault. The assaults may season him and prepare him for what's to follow once he's the presumptive nominee. Or they could leave him so bloodied that he can't again find his bearings.
Good luck, Howard.