Des Moines, Iowa: So much for the inevitability of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic
presidential nominee. The biggest story in the world today is the
defeat of Clinton and the entire Clinton political machine, led by her
husband, former President Bill Clinton, in the Iowa caucuses. Iowa has
the first contest in the 2008 presidential race, but it's not always a
critically important event. This year it was.
The second biggest story is the Iowa victory of Barack Obama, a senator
from Illinois who has just finished his third year in office. He is an
African-American with remarkable appeal across racial and cultural
lines. Obama is now not only the favorite to win the Democratic
presidential nomination, he's the candidate in either party with the
best chance of becoming the next president.
Mike Huckabee's defeat of Mitt Romney here in the Republican caucuses
was extraordinary. But beating a former one-term Massachusetts governor
is hardly as historically significant as Obama's triumph over Clinton.
Until recently Huckabee, a Baptist preacher and the ex-governor of
Arkansas, wasn't taken seriously by the media and political
communities, including by me. But in Iowa he proved to have impressive
campaign skills that may allow him to reach beyond the conservative
Christian base responsible for his victory here. To win the Republican
nomination, he'll need to.
So what's the status of the candidates? Some are better off as a result
of the Iowa results, some
worse. The next contests come quickly--the
New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, then primaries in Michigan, South Carolina, and Florida, followed by 22 primaries on February 5.
Let's start with Obama. Pre-Iowa, polls showed him trailing Clinton in
New Hampshire. He's likely to jump ahead of her now, though New
Hampshire voters occasionally show a contrarian streak. If he wins the
primary, Obama will become the prohibitive favorite for the nomination.
For the past 36 years, a candidate, Republican or Democrat, who wins in
Iowa and New Hampshire has always won the nomination. If New Hampshire
doesn't cinch it for Obama, South Carolina, where half the Democratic
voters are African-Americans, may.
Clinton has deep problems. She has a base in the Democratic party, but
it wasn't enough to keep her from an embarrassing third place finish in
Iowa. True, she can point to the elder George Bush, who finished third
in Iowa in 1988 and then went on to win the Republican nomination. But
his rivals weren't as formidable and attractive as Obama. For Clinton,
winning New Hampshire is a must and now she's the underdog.
John Edwards emerges from Iowa on life support. He needed to win in
Iowa, where he finished second (to John Kerry) in 2004. He practically
lived in the state the past four years. It was his best shot. It's
difficult to see an Edwards path to the nomination.
Now, the Republicans. Huckabee wisely added a populist economic message
to his religious appeal in Iowa. It doesn't have much substance to it.
It's largely sentiment. By emphasizing the populist pitch, he may
broaden his appeal to Republican voters in states with fewer
conservative Christians than Iowa. We'll see. In any case, the
Republican race is wide open.
Romney is badly wounded, having made a massive effort in Iowa and failed. His
support in polls in the early states has leveled off in the high 20s. And he
hasn't succeeded in winning over rural, lower middle class, and evangelical
Christian Republicans. New Hampshire
is friendlier turf for him, but he must expand his base of support there, too.
If he doesn't, he's facing a steep uphill climb to the nomination.
John McCain was mostly an absentee candidate in Iowa, but he got exactly what he'd hoped for
there--Romney's defeat. McCain has concentrated on New Hampshire, where his poll numbers are
skyrocketing. He's the closest thing to a favorite in the state now. Beating
Romney would put him squarely in the hunt for the Republican nomination.
Rudy Giuliani ignored Iowa
and is counting on winning later primaries in big states--a strategy that has
never worked in the past. Fred Thompson, with a third place showing in Iowa, is a walking dead
man, politically speaking. Duncan Hunter isn't even walking. Libertarian Ron
Paul got 10 percent of the Iowa vote, which
will keep him in the race and maybe catapult him into Sunday's Fox News debate
in New Hampshire.
Two more things. Democrats nearly doubled their turnout--to 220,000--in the Iowa caucuses from 2004.
This is a legitimate measure of their enthusiasm and zeal. Republicans drew
114,000 voters to their caucuses. This is a measure of their relative lack of
enthusiasm and determination to hold the presidency.
reinforces the odds favoring a Democratic victory in 2008. And Iowa has given Democrats
a clear frontrunner who's likeable and inspiring (at least to Democrats). More
important, he's an African-American who appeals to white voters. His victory in
overwhelmingly white Iowa
may turn out to be the start of an Obama surge to the White House.