It's Gotten Too Close to Call

The presidential primary season swings into action.

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Suddenly, it's a whole new ballgame. The front-runners are fading. The priorities of the electorate are changing. Voters in the early states are shifting allegiances. In short, as Democrats and Republicans prepare to cast their ballots in the Iowa caucuses January 3 and the New Hampshire primary January 8, the presidential nominations are up for grabs. Neither of the front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, has "sealed the deal," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. And this wild-card election campaign is becoming more interesting and more volatile than ever.

On the Democratic side, New York Senator Clinton's hoped-for coronation has turned into a battle royal with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and, to a lesser degree, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Clinton leads in the nationwide polls, but Obama has surged to a tie with her in Iowa. And he is challenging her for supremacy in New Hampshire. Meanwhile, Edwards is demonstrating steady strength in Iowa, where he came in second in 2004 and where his supporters are very loyal.

What helped to shake up the race were several Clinton stumbles, particularly when her campaign clumsily raised questions about Obama's experience and she offered muddled views on whether illegal immigrants should get driver's licenses. This in turn raised anew the familiar concerns about whether she is too polarizing, ruthless, and calculating to win a general election.

Still, Clinton has some powerful advantages. One is experience, at least in terms of having fought for many years in Washington's political wars. As she constantly points out, she has demonstrated "proven leadership that's been tested," referring to her two terms as a senator and her eight years as first lady in the 1990s. She argues that it's not enough to demand change in Washington, as Edwards does, or to hope for it, as Obama does. She says that she has the experience to actually make change happen, from improving the healthcare system (which she failed to overhaul during her husband's first term, although she says she learned not to overreach the next time) to ending the Iraq war.

In mid-December, Clinton got the endorsement of the influential Des Moines Register, which should help her in Iowa. And, in a tacit acknowledgment that she lags in likability, she made upbeat appearances in Iowa with her mother, Dorothy Rodham, and daughter, Chelsea, and was joined on another occasion by both her gregarious husband and the equally effusive former Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Magic Johnson. Her campaign also established a website, thehillaryiknow.com, featuring supporters such as a pastor and a childhood friend telling flattering stories about her.

But Obama continues to cause consternation in Hillaryland. After making little or no progress in overtaking her through the late summer and autumn, he seems to have found his voice again. And late-deciding voters are impressed. Riding the momentum of rising poll numbers, Obama has been sprinting to the finish line in the early states with a renewed emphasis on the need for political reconciliation in Washington, an end to partisan rancor, a focus on new ideas, and, above all, change from the status quo.

Edwards is in third place in Iowa and nationally. But he has a strong base among Democrats who like his tough stands against the Iraq war and his confrontational attitude toward entrenched interests in Washington. Lacking the resources and support of his rivals, if he flops in the Hawkeye State, his campaign will probably be over.

For the Republicans, a perceived two-man battle between former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has suddenly morphed into a five-way race.

Giuliani is ahead nationally but has slipped in the polls, and he has minimal support in Iowa and New Hampshire. Romney has the reverse problem—languishing in national surveys but doing well in the early states. He has seen his lead in Iowa dwindle amid questions about his inconsistency on some issues and his Mormon faith. Still, Romney has a powerful organization, lots of money, a conservative philosophy, and an engaging personality, so he can't be counted out. Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson has yet to show much strength outside the South but could catch fire as a telegenic conservative in the mold of Ronald Reagan.