Political Intrigue, Drama Await as Primaries Are Mere Weeks Away

By Chris Cillizza And Shailagh Murray
Sunday, November 25, 2007

After months of intense back-and-forth in both parties, the earliest-starting race in American campaign history is now just weeks away from a six-day sequence that appears certain to put its stamp on both the Democratic and Republican nominating campaigns. With poll numbers showing the Democratic front-runners in a dogfight in Iowa and the GOP field wide open in the first contest, here's a helpful guide from the Sunday Fix to the scenarios that could alter -- or cement -- the current calculus in both party showdowns.

On the Democratic side:

- Hoping to keep the anti-Clinton vote in Iowa as fractured as possible, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton ignores former senator John Edwards and trains all of her fire on Sen. Barack Obama. That could force Obama to knock Edwards down on his own, distracting him from Clinton and tarnishing his "politics of hope" image by picking on the one Democrat in the race who has been nice to him.

- Rather than shrinking to two, as expected, the Iowa field expands to four top-tier candidates with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson edging higher in the polls during the final weeks. There goes the playbook, front-runners. Do Clinton, Obama and Edwards ignore Richardson? If not, who takes the opening shot at the first major Hispanic presidential candidate, and how personal does it get?

- Sen. John Kerry and/or former vice president Al Gore -- the party's last two presidential nominees -- endorse Obama. The stamp of approval from one or both of these establishment pols assuages whatever lingering doubts voters may hold about the first-term senator's readiness. Obama wins Iowa, and the New Hampshire contest becomes a clash of the titans -- the likes of which the Democratic Party hasn't seen since . . . the last time Joe Biden ran.

On the Republican side:

- After disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, former senator Fred Thompson drops his bid for the nomination and throws his support behind his old friend, Sen. John McCain, in the run-up to the South Carolina primary. The Palmetto State was McCain's Waterloo in 2000. Can DA Arthur Branch get their attention, and turn the gloomy McCain narrative around?

- Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani goes on the attack in New Hampshire . . . against Ron Paul. Giuliani's numbers in the Granite State have flatlined of late, while Dr. No's small-government message has found a receptive host with New Hampshire's frustrated fiscal conservatives. But Paul is no Heritage Foundation fellow. He's a radical thinker, and what better way for Rudy to remind voters why they like him than to hammer on some of Paul's more controversial statements?

- McCain makes a run at Mitt Romney in Iowa, hoping to slow his momentum in the first two contests. We're talking ads, town hall meetings, the works. McCain assumes (perhaps over-optimistically?) he can place fourth or fifth in the Hawkeye State and still finish strong in New Hampshire. But if McCain can at least climb over Giuliani on caucus night, the Manchester Union Leader headline on Jan. 4 could be a lot more welcoming.

Does former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee -- the man whose upbeat, touchy-feely conservatism has vaulted him into contention in Iowa -- have a darker side?

Yes, insist operatives tied to former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander's Iowa operation in the 2000 presidential race.

Huckabee was intimately involved in the campaign as a prominent Alexander supporter and surrogate. As such, he was in Iowa with Alexander in the run-up to the Ames straw poll and, according to Dave Kochel, who managed Alexander's Iowa campaign, not only urged but helped to craft ads that suggested Texas Gov. George W. Bush was trying to buy the election.

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