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« Morning Thoughts: Game Day | Blog Home Page | Politics Nation: Heretic »

Previewing The Caucus

DES MOINES -- This is it. After millions of dollars, hundreds of visits, uncountable phone calls and doors knocked, the presidential contest actually gets a solid result tonight as Iowans head to their local caucuses to pick a presidential nominee. A campaign that has lasted a year, though, is not coming to a close, it is in fact speeding up. And the media, hungry for a metric spun not by a campaign but by voters, will overhype and overplay the results here so much as to make a good showing -- or at least the appearance of a good showing -- crucial.

The Democratic race comes down to three likely contenders, all of whom have invested incredible resources in the state and all of whom have a legitimate shot at winning. Their chances come down to factors somewhat beyond their control, and the question to ask is this: Who does the other guy turn out?

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have seen levels of excitement unlike virtually any candidate in modern history. Outside groups have pushed Clinton on Iowans, especially women, hard. The caucus-going population is made up of a strong majority of women (some expect women to make up as much as 60% of attendees), and EMILY's List and other groups have been working to boost that number. A strong turnout from women means a big boost for Clinton.

Obama has enjoyed unheard-of support from younger voters. That's at once positive and risky. He has the ability to run away with a win here, but only if his people show up. That's hardly unique; seemingly every year one candidate benefits from the "once-in-a-lifetime" mantle and will surely be the first to turn out so many younger voters. Every year, that candidate loses. And yet every year, for some reason, many think a youth turnout operation will be different. This year, indeed, the idea is plausible, thanks to hugely increased excitement and Obama's reliance on older caucus-goers to get him close. Top Iowa advisers call youth votes the "icing on the cake," and if that's all they are, Obama will win big. If younger caucusers are the foundation of the campaign, the candidate could be in trouble.

No one has invested more, and no one needs a better return from Iowa, than John Edwards. After a strong finish in 2004, Edwards made the Hawkeye State the cornerstone of his 2008 bid. But battling Obama for the Anybody-But-Clinton mantle has robbed Edwards of some of the advantages he enjoyed four years ago -- Obama is the fresher face and can outspend Edwards easily. But Edwards is trying something that others have not. While every leading candidate has staff in rural counties, Edwards has been to each of the state's 99 counties twice. That attention could reap huge rewards if he wins counties few others visited. If Edwards is to win, it will be because of his rural strategy. If he loses, because of his focus on Iowa, his road to the White House will likely come up short.

The Republican side is a two-tiered contest, and each tier has two leading candidates. The top tier features a close contest between Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, and while conventional wisdom is coalescing around Romney as the favorite, don't be surprised if the race is closer than expected. Huckabee still leads the RCP Iowa Average, but Romney's superior organization makes the 3-point deficit smaller than Huckabee wants.

If Romney pulls out the win, his team will still face a hurdle, thanks to a surging John McCain, in New Hampshire. But like the straw poll in August, in which Romney invested heavily and won easily, a win is a win, and anything provides a boost. Romney's mission in the Granite State will be considerably easier -- but by no means simple -- if he wins in Iowa.

On the other hand, a Huckabee victory could harm Romney more than it helps Huckabee. His campaign's turnout operation is largely decentralized, making it vulnerable to breakdowns, and is based on the hope that evangelical voters will turn out. It is difficult to see where Huckabee goes after Iowa. He polls far behind in New Hampshire, and while South Carolina will provide a hospitable environment, Huckabee will not have the time, the money or the organization to compete strongly in February 5 states. His win in Iowa will either be seen as the beginning of a snowball, if he begins bounding upward in New Hampshire, or as the beginning of the end of Romney, who might then find the McCain challenge insurmountable.

The second tier of the GOP race is a battle for third place. McCain, who has spent little time and effort on Iowa, seems to have the most to gain from a third-place finish. His camp has long said they can hope to finish no better than fifth or sixth, and while that seems ridiculous now, it wasn't out of the question for most of last year. Even a weak third-place finish would boost McCain's campaign.

Fred Thompson, though, has worked harder to achieve that third place finish. Thompson has run television advertisements, embarked on a two-week bus tour and realized that his entire race depends on a good finish in Iowa. In fact, insiders told The Politico that without a good finish, Thompson's race is over. The early hype, which Thompson failed to live up to, has been proven all the more disappointing as the candidate actually tried to win: Not only did he appear lazy at the beginning, when he actually worked hard his message did not connect.

The wild card on the GOP side is Ron Paul, who owns the most committed supporters in the GOP field. No one in the media quite knows how to gauge supporters who do not make it through polling screens. If Paul beats a major candidate -- say, Thompson -- his supporters will crow loudly. But that's unlikely because of the organizational power Iowa requires. Paul has a few hundred volunteers on the ground in Iowa, fewer than most other candidates. Paul's supporters should not be disheartened by a weak finish in Iowa, but no one should be too surprised in a fourth place finish.

The non-factor, surprisingly, is Rudy Giuliani. After months of dominating the GOP field, Giuliani has been largely absent from headlines in recent weeks. His support is minimal in Iowa and fading in New Hampshire and nationally. It remains to be seen exactly what combination of flaws may have doomed Giuliani's campaign in early states, but unless he shows up somewhere, the one-time front-runner will end up little more than a footnote in history.

Iowans have their chance to make their feelings known today. When they do, they will fundamentally alter the state of each race. As the votes roll in and the campaigns spin the results, half a dozen campaign planes will take off for Manchester while another half dozen inner circles will begin plotting their exits from the race. Once again, Iowa has the opportunity to change the national political landscape, and with two neck-and-neck races, just one thing is certain: Every pundit will be wrong about something.