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« McCain Parachutes In | Blog Home Page | Previewing The Caucus »

Morning Thoughts: Game Day

DES MOINES -- It's Christmas for political junkies, and here at the downtown Des Moines convention center, everyone's giddy already, as early morning news anchors finish their stand-ups. The last stories Iowans will see and read before they caucus:

-- Today On The Trail: John Edwards meets volunteers in Des Moines, speaks at a restaurant in Iowa City and greets fans in Cedar Rapids before heading back to Des Moines. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will celebrate the results at different events tonight in Des Moines. Joe Biden has rallies planned in Waterloo, Dubuque, Davenport and Des Moines, while Chris Dodd has events in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Des Moines.

-- On the GOP side, Mike Huckabee makes last-minute stops in Burlington and Grinnell before hisparty tonight in Des Moines. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, has an event in West Des Moines and Waukee before his celebration party tonight. John McCain will host his last Iowa events in Council Bluffs, Sioux City and LeMars before heading to Manchester and Derry, New Hampshire. Rudy Giuliani hosts a town hall in Bedford, New Hampshire before returning to Florida for a rally in Hialeah. Ron Paul is in Des Moines for a speech, media availability and caucus events, while Fred Thompson meets voters in West Des Moines, Council Bluffs, Sioux City and Des Moines.

-- Just hours before Iowans head to the caucuses, all the buzz is centered on Obama, who seems to be surging at just the right moment. In the final weeks, Obama seemed to have peaked, and when history is written, it could be the timely Des Moines Register poll, splashed across Iowa front pages two days before caucus day, that halted the beginnings of a slide and restarted his momentum. Clinton has drawn big crowds as well, including a capacity crowd last night at a huge venue in downtown, but if you push most reporters and politicos, people are starting to guess Obama.

-- Most people in Iowa will tell you that Mike Huckabee hit his apex last week, and that Mitt Romney's closing argument reasserted the former governor as the top dog in Iowa. We argued a few months ago, when Huckabee first took the lead in Iowa, that his ascendence might actually be a good thing for Romney: Team Mitt was inevitable in Iowa, so when he won there would be no surprise. When Huckabee robbed him of the sheen of inevitability, it gave Romney the opportunity to surprise again. Sure, Huckabee and everyone else will make the argument that Romney outspent everyone in Iowa, but don't forget that people were signing death certificates for the Romney campaign just a month ago, and now he seems to have regained the lead.

-- In October, it was unthinkable that Obama would be the Iowa winner. Throughout the year, Romney was dogged by doubters and critics, and the campaign had its share of low moments. John McCain is building a huge head of steam in New Hampshire after nearly going broke this summer. The lesson: Never write a political obituary so far out from an election. A campaign has to go through rough patches before it blossoms. The campaign that rebuilds from an unexpected valley is going to be the one that hangs around at the end of the day.

-- Having said that, a valley needs to come significantly before the first votes are cast in order for that whole pesky recovery thing to work. For one candidate, the discussion around Washington is that the slump came too late, and the vultures are already circling. Politico's Allen and Martin report today that Fred Thompson is likely to end his campaign if he does not earn a good finish here, and that he will back McCain if he does. Thompson has seen poll numbers slump in recent weeks despite a long bus tour, and many speculate that his campaign is rapidly running out of money.

-- Clinton will not drop out if she loses Iowa, but it's certainly not good news for her campaign. Backers of the once-inevitable New Yorker are already spinning a possible loss, ABC's Rick Klein reports. What happens if Clinton goes down here? She probably finds herself engaged in a two-way race with Obama that's much tighter than pundits had anticipated.

-- The campaigns are all attracting huge crowds, but there are clear differences. Barack Obama pulled 2000 people to a Des Moines rally, while Clinton packed a downtown location with 1000 people. Clinton's campaign has revised its turnout model up to 150,000 people, Marc Ambinder reports, well above an all-time record. Conventional wisdom is that the more voters who turn out, the better Obama does. Still, it is likely that the campaign that turns out the most first-time voters will win, and Clinton has her own backers among those who have not caucused before.

-- What of Edwards? After a great finish in 2004, Edwards parked himself in Iowa, and a bad finish here would be devastating to the campaign. The question is how the media defines a bad finish. Third place, most agree, is out of the question for Edwards. But after spending so much time and energy here, Edwards could find that anything short of an outright win is an underperformance. Don't assume, though, that Edwards is completely out of the race. He has a strong organization, along with union backers who are dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race and outside groups that are organizing for him. Today will either be very good or very bad for Edwards; there is little middle ground.

-- We apologize for the late post. Having some serious internet issues that will have to be dealt with soon. More as the day goes on.