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8 Questions Iowa Could Answer

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 3, 2008

1) Will Either Race End in Iowa?

The only race that could is in the Democratic Party and only if Hillary Clinton wins a big victory. Iowa has proved resistant to the Clinton brand, and she has struggled there throughout the year. But her final days of campaigning have been solid, and a victory, no matter how narrow, would be a big boost for her.

Barack Obama has plenty of money to keep going, whatever the outcome. If he wins or there is any kind of a muddled finish on the Democratic side, the battle goes to New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. An Edwards victory here guarantees the race continues; he has been trailing in New Hampshire and lags both Clinton and Obama in money.

There is no way the Republican race ends in Iowa. If Mitt Romney comes back to win, he will get more credit than he might have before Mike Huckabee's dramatic surge into the pre-caucus poll lead. But Romney has now got a fight on his hands in New Hampshire against John McCain, and the GOP race is too fluid.

Huckabee has an even more difficult path, even if he wins here, because he has been lagging in New Hampshire. "If Huckabee wins, the results will confuse the Republican nomination, rather than clarify it," said GOP strategist Terry Nelson.

Both the Democratic and Republican races could go to Feb. 5, when nearly two dozen states will hold contests. Some strategists believe the races could go beyond that, particularly the Republican campaign.

The campaign, however, will end for some after Iowa. Lower-tier candidates may try to hang on through New Hampshire, but single-digit finishes in Iowa will spell the end for a number of candidates. And as a Republican strategist observed, "Iowa will mark the beginning of the end for other major contenders in the field, but we just aren't smart enough to figure out which ones."

2) How Big Will the Iowa Bounce Be?

The big difference this year is the shortened time between Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primaries. Normally eight days, it will be just five this time, thanks to the decision by New Hampshire Secretary of State William M. Gardner to schedule New Hampshire so soon after Iowa.

The bounce, say experts, usually shows up a couple of days after Iowa and then begins to dissipate. A clean Obama victory over Clinton and Edwards would become a very big story and would dominate the news into the weekend debates. A Romney win could arrest McCain's growing strength in New Hampshire. But the altered calendar throws a monkey wrench into the predictions of the experts, who are in considerable disagreement on this question.

3) Is This Process Defensible?

Some political strategists found this question too hot to handle, not wanting to offend Iowans but not enamored of a process in which fewer than 200,000 Democrats and fewer than 100,000 Republicans will participate. Add to that the fact that the state is largely white and rural -- and the absence of one-person, one-vote rules on the Democratic side -- and the caucuses attract even more critics.

Some Democrats also believe the caucus electorate is too left-leaning for the party's good. As one strategist put it, "The only time Democrats have nominated a candidate who won the White House since 1976 was the year everyone skipped Iowa." That was in 1992, when all other candidates deferred to home-state Sen. Tom Harkin's presidential bid. Harkin won Iowa handily, and Clinton went on to become the party's nominee and president.

But Iowa voters have earned the respect of the candidates and their staffs, even those who feel the caucus process itself is flawed. Iowa's process forces candidates to look voters in the eye and answer their questions. The long exposure voters have to the candidates -- and in this election, it has been longer and more intense than ever -- gives them a unique opportunity to weigh strengths and weaknesses. "Somebody needs to do that and Iowans have been trained to do it," one Democrat wrote.

There is widespread agreement that what has happened this year requires major surgery for 2012. The compressed calendar and the early start to voting have left almost everyone involved in this campaign frustrated.

"The caucus process itself is defensible," said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. "The calendar is not defensible."

4) Which Candidate Will Turn Out the Most First-Time Caucus Participants?

Lots of candidates for this award, but the consensus among strategists in Iowa and elsewhere is that Obama will draw the most newcomers. "He has lit a fire among many younger voters and those on the fringes of political activism that is unprecedented in recent years," one GOP strategist said.

Certainly the Des Moines Register's final poll suggested that was the case. More than 70 percent of Obama's supporters in the Register poll said they had not gone to a caucus in the past -- well above the percentages for Clinton and Edwards.

On the Republican side, there seems little doubt that Huckabee will find more support among newcomers to the caucuses. Ron Paul could attract newcomers, but the view of one strategist is that Paul's followers are more likely to show up for a primary -- which is why he could surprise people in New Hampshire -- but are less comfortable with party-establishment events such as the caucuses.

5) Who Was the Most Effective Celebrity Surrogate?

Oprah Winfrey's appearances for Obama drew nearly 30,000 people to Obama's events, giving his campaign, if not actual supporters, the information on another bloc of voters for their caucus-day database.

Bill Clinton is probably the most popular Democrat in Iowa, and his appearances have been welcomed by Hillary Clinton's team of Iowa strategists. And Chuck Norris was featured in Huckabee's first ad and appeared with him in Iowa.

One Democrat rated said Bill Clinton a more valuable surrogate than Oprah Winfrey because he's out every day on the campaign trail, but here's another thought, offered up by Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein:

"My sleeper surrogates of this race are Hillary's mother and daughter," he wrote in an e-mail. "My bet is they are helping to humanize her in Iowa, and could well do the same in NH [New Hampshire] and SC [South Carolina]. Whether it's enough to have a tangible effect on a sizeable portion of skeptical voters remains to be seen."

6) If Edwards or Huckabee Win, What Is Their Second Act?

"They don't have one," one Democratic strategist said. That's an extreme view and one not shared by many others, but it goes to the heart of the challenge both Edwards and Huckabee will face even if they win Iowa.

Big money often dominates campaigns and will become more important as the campaign moves past both Iowa and New Hampshire and toward Feb. 5. Neither Huckabee nor Edwards can claim to be the big-money candidate. Huckabee raised little until he began to move, and Edwards has put limits on himself by accepting federal matching funds.

The next state on the calendar does not look hospitable to either candidate. Edwards finished second in Iowa in 2004 but was weak in New Hampshire, and it cost him. This time, mindful of that history, he has invested much more time in the state, attempting to build a better foundation so that an Iowa victory doesn't get squandered.

Huckabee's religious conservatism will find far fewer receptive Republicans in socially moderate New Hampshire, and he will be battling not only Romney but also a resurgent McCain -- and a struggling Giuliani and an unpredictable Ron Paul -- there on Tuesday.

The consensus of strategists is that both should look to South Carolina (Jan. 19 for the Republicans and Jan. 26 for the Democrats) to strike again. "In fact, if Edwards wins Iowa, South Carolina looms very large as the next super showdown between the three," said Democratic strategist Anita Dunn.

Huckabee might be able to rebound from a weak New Hampshire finish with a strong showing in Michigan on Jan. 15. Edwards has looked to Nevada on Jan. 19 as a possible lifeline.

7) Will Women Prove to Be Hillary Clinton's Secret Weapon?

"Women who committed to Clinton will be dependable and loyal," one Democratic strategist predicted. Another said women would be a more potent force for Clinton in a general election, if she wins the Democratic nomination.

The Clinton campaign sees women over 45, many of whom have never attended a caucus before, as the key to success. But several strategists argued that women will prove to be a disappointment for Clinton, that older women in particular have had trouble warming up to her. That, however, is a minority view.

8) Can Evangelical Christians Carry the Day in Iowa?

Pat Robertson built an army among evangelical Christians in 1988 and finished second with 25 percent of the vote in Iowa. One GOP strategist said he believes that could represent something of a ceiling and that Huckabee will struggle to do better than that.

There are signs of real energy in the conservative Christian community over his candidacy, but he is dependent on a largely untested grass-roots network to turn out potential supporters.

Several GOP strategists believe that religious conservatives can make the difference for a candidate, but only in a crowded field. The better candidates such as McCain and Giuliani do in Iowa, the more potent it would make the power of religious conservatives backing Huckabee. "America remains strongly a nation of faith, and GOP primary voters/caucus attendees strongly reflect that underlying belief," one strategist said.

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