As the Iowa caucus took place in 2000, I spent the evening in a hotel suite in Des Moines with Vice President Gore and part of his senior campaign leadership. The real work that night was happening in schools, churches and communities centers across the state, where dozens of carefully cultivated and trained Iowans were making the final case for Al Gore. Just weeks before, we had trailed Bill Bradley in some polls and fundraising, but that had concentrated the candidate's and the campaign's mind, and by election night we were confident.

But it was no longer in our control. We were flying blind, assuming that many months of work and reassurances would indeed lead to our volunteers delivering our caucus voters in communities all over the state. There were all sorts of rumors — that Bradley himself was going to make last-minute appeals at certain key sites; that some of our supporters had phoned in sick; that turnout was light; no, then it was heavy. One's stomach rose and fell with every rumor.  

Our guides were Michael Whouley and Donna Brazile, two organizational geniuses. Whouley, in particular, had whipped Iowa into shape. But he didn’t get where he is by over-promising.  So he remained taciturn and grim through most of the afternoon and into the early evening, adding to the fear. (One of the conclusions I've reached about politics is that the fear of losing is almost always the stronger motivator than is the desire to win.)

I reviewed the latest drafts of two speeches — one for victory, one for defeat. The latter was a sharp reminder that a loss in Iowa for an incumbent vice president was perhaps a fatal one. Air Force 2 stood ready to take us on a red-eye from Des Moines to Manchester, where the New Hampshire team already had a schedule that began with a 6 a.m. factory meet-and-greet.

We won Iowa that night — big. Gore gave a confident speech that looked forward to New Hampshire. A small group of us boarded the plane. Between the Secret Service agents and the great number of Air Force personnel assigned to the plane, even a 757 doesn’t hold too many people.  Plus, the campaign has to reimburse the government for freeloaders like me. I don't know what the ticket costs on Air Force 2, but it's a lot more than it is on Southwest, which flew a lot of others in the morning.

New Hampshire became a blur of stops, one debate, and tracking polls. We ended up winning there, too, but by a slim margin. We had come into Iowa on a wave, but Bradley and the contrarian voters of New Hampshire had almost made us dust off the second — loser — speech, which had been put in the computer drawer after Iowa. The only reason our narrow victory didn’t raise more eyebrows is that John McCain stunned George W. Bush.

This memory meander reminds me that Iowa matters for everything until about midnight tonight — when suddenly it doesn’t matter at all. The charters leave for Manchester — even Michelle Bachmann will have enough gas for that flight, although I might accept only cash if I were the charter company. The press is being spun on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire and in the air on the charters. A year of work is over, less than 1 percent of the delegates have been selected, and now it all rides on one week in New Hampshire.

One thing I know about New Hampshire; it likes to put its own stamp on the election; it rarely ratifies Iowa.