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« House, Senate Dems Lead GOP | Blog Home Page | Morning Thoughts: Lotta Surprise »

Are Expectations Already Set?

The common phrase top anchors will repeat ad nauseum over the next three weeks is that there are three tickets on each side out of Iowa. There's a ticket for win, place and show. But for some candidates, might even a win, and a first-class seat on the plane to Manchester, be less comfortable than the place ticket in Economy Plus?

Pollsters and pundits have breathlessly informed everyone, for months on end, that Hillary Clinton is the runaway favorite for the Democratic nomination. And they're right. One pundit was overheard to explain that no candidate who's ever polled greater than 50% in a national poll has failed to win their race.

But a national poll is not the same as a state poll. Clinton's lead around the country is not even close to the state of the race in Iowa, where her lead is just 2.4% in the latest RCP Iowa Average, and where she even trails Barack Obama in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll. New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina will be heavily influenced by Iowa's outcome, and Democratic candidates are planning on an extended campaign.

Should dominoes fall in something other than Clinton's favor in those early states, regardless of how much money remains in her coffers, February 5 will be very difficult following a series of early disappointments. In short, Clinton is inevitable only if she actually wins something. Which is why someone else staying close in Iowa is leading Team Hillary to prepare for a possible letdown, as the Chicago Sun-Times reports (Campaign spokesman Mark Daley: "Our definition of success doesn't necessarily mean coming in first.").

But the campaign must still be somewhat confident: Their choice at the moment is to bolster Iowa staff in order to win, not New Hampshire staff to set up contingency plans. Still, a Clinton victory in Iowa is less valuable than an Obama or Edwards victory there. That doesn't mean, however, the state is a must-win for every campaign.

On the Republican side, Politics Nation has been arguing for months that, despite national polls, Mitt Romney is the GOP front-runner. After enjoying months of big leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, recent polls have even showed Romney pulling ahead in the latest RCP South Carolina Average. With that kind of momentum and free media, as well as an almost bottomless pocketbook, Rudy Giuliani's lead in national polls could become Romney's lead in national polls.

But the last two weeks have brought nothing but bad for Mitt Romney's campaign. First, Huck-mentum gets moving in a big way -- so much so that Iowa polls have the former Arkansas governor close to a statistical tie with Romney and that other campaigns have begun to take on Huckabee's record, a sure sign that he's viable. Second, anti-Mormon phone calls that began showing up around the country earned the Romney campaign not sympathy but suspicion -- people actually thought the campaign would do that to themselves.

Finally, with Huckabee breathing down Romney's neck in Iowa, Giuliani plans to challenge Romney in New Hampshire, where Hizzoner will invest a whopping $700,000 in ads, second-most after the $4 million Romney has already spent, John Harwood reports.

So things aren't looking good for Romney. What's worse: He's still expected to win Iowa and New Hampshire. If he wins, the mainstream media will have expected it. If he loses, it's big news. Sometimes a candidate can become too much of an inevitability, and Romney may have reached that plateau. Perhaps the best thing that can happen to him before Iowans begin to vote is a serious stumble -- it would have to happen sooner rather than later to allow for recovery -- in order to reset conventional wisdom. If such a stumble is not forthcoming, then Romney's big win may be nothing more than a vehicle to talk about the amazing performances of second place Huckabee and third place (Giuliani? Thompson? Does it matter?).

Clinton and Romney are, in short, suffering from their own exceptional performances. Without Clinton's big lead in national polls, and without Romney's giant lead in early states, their performance in Iowa would matter less. But with both candidates' recent bad luck -- stumbles for Clinton and opponents' good fortunes for Romney -- performing well in the lead-off contest is becoming more important. With six weeks left before Iowans caucus, can either do anything to reduce expectations? Maybe the more important question each has to prepare for is, what if we don't beat expectations that are already set?