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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Rudy, Hillary, and Iowa

Two news stories from today indicate why this race is still wide open.

The first comes from the Des Moines Register:

Democrat Hillary Clinton's shake-up of her Iowa campaign reflects an acknowledgement that she needs to make a serious effort in the leadoff caucuses, aides said Tuesday.

Clinton named longtime Iowa campaign operative and national party organizer Teresa Vilmain as the campaign's Iowa director, replacing JoDee Winterhof.

The move comes as the U.S. senator from New York leads the Democratic presidential field in most national polls but has consistently come in second or third in polls of Iowa caucusgoers.

This, of course, is just a few weeks after Clinton was encouraged to skip the Iowa caucus altogether. This is a sign of struggle in the Clinton camp, a sign that her campaign has not yet established the organizational fundamentals to get past Edwards (or, worse, to stay ahead of Obama). I think Iowa could be trouble for her. The Clinton candidacy has a larger-than-life feel to it, and I worry for her that a loss in Iowa would be like a pin-prick is to a balloon. And God help her if she finishes third. The good news for her: she is aware of a problem, and is endeavoring to make positive steps in the Hawkeye State. And, of course, it is better to do this in June than in November.

The second news item regards the GOP field. It comes from Jonathan Martin's blog on Politico.com:

Rudy Giuliani will not participate in the Ames Straw Poll in August, a traditional test of strength in the GOP presidential contest.

Rudy's Iowa and national campaign broke the news to the Des Moines Register's Tom Beaumont this morning and will hold a conference call with all media to discuss the matter at Noon.

Giuliani campaign manager Mike DuHaime sought to lessen the sting to Iowa GOP activists by couching the decision as part of a broader decision to forgo all straw polls this year. He also reiterated that they were "100 percent committed to winning the Iowa caucuses." They'll add more staff there this month and the candidate will return to the state in a few weeks, per Beaumont.

If Rudy is not running at Ames, it means he is afraid that he is not going to do well there, which does not surprise me. He probably has assessed that he cannot finish first at Ames, and he is worried that he might finish third or fourth. His decision about Ames might be a sign that he will skip Iowa altogether. While I think Rudy can suffer a second place finish in Iowa, I doubt that he could finish third in the caucus without some major damage.

This is where Iowa can play spoiler. If the two front runners do worse than expected in the state, it might damage them elsewhere. Iowa voters serve as a cue to voters in the rest of the primaries. Giuliani and Clinton might have nationwide leads right now, but if Iowa puts them both in third, their respective positions will be damaged. This is, of course, exactly what happened to Howard Dean.

And so, we can see that these two are frontrunners*. They both have potential weaknesses such that several of their opponents have reasonable paths to the nomination. And, ultimately, we do ourselves a disservice by focusing too intently on the national polls, which - as I argued yesterday - are not really apt. I think that these polls inflate the difference between Giuliani and the rest of the GOP field, and Clinton and the rest of the Democratic field.

Starting next week (hopefully), I am going to offer evaluations of the leaders for each party's nomination. I think I will have something unique to say about each of them. I'll quote Mr. Martin again just to offer a little hint of what I'll argue about Mitt Romney:

While it remains to be seen whether Fred Thompson participates -- and signs would indicate that he doesn't intend to -- the absence of the national frontrunner will lessen the value of the event. It also may ratchet up the pressure on the lesser known candidates to drop out of the race. If, for example, Giuliani and Thompson both skip the event and still finish among the top spots (keep in mind that their names will still likely be on the ballot) ahead of candidates who spent considerable time and money on Ames it will make their back-of-the-pack finishes all the more crushing.

I believe it will be a good summer for Mr. Romney. We have him in first in our poll average for Iowa, and one, maybe two, of his biggest rivals will be skipping the Ames straw poll. This presents him with an excellent opportunity. This is yet another reason why I am becoming more bullish about his prospects.

-Jay Cost