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What the Campaign Vets Are Saying

By Susan Estrich

LOS ANGELES -- At Christmas dinner at my friend Lynne's, the talk was politics. What else? Scattered around the room were veterans of more campaigns than anyone wanted to count, and the best news, for all of us, was that this year, we were all eating dinner with friends and family in California, not taking the extra chair in the home of a new best friend in Manchester or drinking dinner at the Savery Hotel in downtown Des Moines. Been there, done that.

So what did we know? What did you miss?

Good food and great desserts and more than a few heads shaking.

The line we had all heard from all three campaigns on the Democratic side (Clinton, Obama, and Edwards) was that anyone could finish first. Or second. Or, most importantly, third. In Iowa, what has always counted most is not who wins but who loses.

Twenty years ago, my then-husband, drafted to figure out how to describe Michael Dukakis' third place finish in a way that would preserve his lead in New Hampshire, turned to him and said, "You won the bronze." That was it. This week the bronze, next week the gold.

The bronze line won't work this time. None of these three was expected to finish fourth, as Dukakis was in the last Des Moines Register poll before the caucus. The first and second place finishers were both midwesterners that year, with what we used to call the home court advantage. And almost everyone was paying more attention to what was happening with the Republicans, where the supposed shoe-in, then Vice President George Bush the elder, was finishing third not only behind Bob Dole, but also behind Pat Robertson and his newly-created Christian Coalition.

The bronze was good enough to get Dukakis back on the plane to New Hampshire with his frontrunner status in that state comfortably in tact, after which everyone forgot about Iowa, much to that year's winner, Dick Gephardt's, regret. Dick's campaign manager was at dinner this week, looking healthier and heartier, not to mention thinner (fewer chicken fried steaks and nights at the Savery) than he or I either did 20 years ago.

So the question in Iowa is not only who will win, but who will finish third. Whoever wins gets a bump, but whoever finishes third gets a serious kick in the behind.

The polls are almost meaningless at this point. Another line you hear, in an effort to distinguish which polls are the most reliable, is that it depends on who actually bought the list of Democratic voters, so they start out calling the folks who went last time. You know people are hard up in their predictions when it comes down to comparing lists for polling.

The problem, or the bigger one, is predicting turnout, which no one has any real basis for doing, and figuring out how many first-time caucus goers there are going to be this time, and who they're going to be. And they aren't on any list. You don't find them unless you try the old random digit dialing and screening methods of polling, where you call numbers in a predetermined but randomized fashion, and then ask a series of questions ("the screen") to determine if the person you're actually talking to is likely to caucus.

Problem is, who you get depends on what day and when you call, and a lot of people lie-- both because they like to be asked questions and because they don't, neither of which are predictors of who will vote.

A new poll, out on Wednesday, has Hillary jumping to a double digit lead in Iowa. Is it right? Who knows?

I suppose you could try to find out what list they used, but whatever it was, it was probably the same method they used last week when the same polling company had Obama ahead.

Has something changed? Maybe. The people at my dinner, who amongst us support all of the above and none of the above, seemed to think that the Obama surge in Iowa and New Hampshire was real, but that it may have flattened out. What everyone is waiting to see is what women, especially educated women who have a high-propensity to vote, are going to do. Will they finally "come home" to Hillary, as I've been predicting for months? If they do, she does fine. If they don't, watch out.

Don't count Edwards out. If he wins Iowa, that means one of the other two finishes third, which is bad news for whoever it is. Edwards and Obama have been jousting over the last few days, which could mean they're fighting for the right to take on Hillary, or could mean they're fighting each other because they think it could come to that. It could be helping Hillary in the short run-- see the latest poll-- but if nothing else, it is a sign that Edwards is still very much in play. And he has Nevada lined up, and that's a caucus state, which could give him a boost going South.

The backstabbing has begun, in force, as you'd expect this time of year, with much of it focused on whether Mark Penn, Hillary's chief guru, is poised to grab defeat from the jaws of victory. That's not how I see it, and it certainly wasn't the consensus of a group which included no members of the Penn family. Whether you like Penn or not, and a lot of people don't, at least this week, I still think that Hillary has run the campaign that makes sense for her. She has raised the money, lined up the endorsements, put the focus where she had to, on her own experience and the Clinton record. If she loses because people just don't like her, or like Obama better, you can't blame Penn for that.

The Republican side got shorter shrift, but probably greater insight. The American media is at its best when it's far from home (and not embedded with other Americans); we do better observing others than observing ourselves. Ditto, I think, for a crowd of political hacks.

There was a consensus, among the Dems anyway, about the Republican race. Watch out for McCain. He's coming back. And if and when he does, he's the strongest candidate they've got.

Huckabee? We should be so lucky. Romney? A Democratic dream. Rudy? What's happened to him?

No, it's McCain who Democrats are watching and worrying about. Again. Deja vu all over again. Wait long enough and the whole thing turns around. But waiting is one luxury this set of candidates is running out of time for.....

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year... and here's to Des Moines and Manchester.

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