It's Gotten Too Close to Call

The presidential primary season swings into action.

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By SHARE

Yet the talk on the political circuit lately has focused on two names—Huckabee and McCain. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister with excellent TV skills, has emerged as the surprise of the year, having moved from single digits in the polls to the GOP leader in Iowa on the strength of support from Christian conservatives. The question is whether Huckabee can withstand the increasing attacks from his opponents, who are zeroing in on his criticism of President Bush's foreign policy, the tax increases he oversaw in Arkansas, and his record of more than 1,000 pardons and commutations. Huckabee has raised little money and is relying on a good showing in Iowa to gain traction elsewhere.

A second look. Another late charger has been Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose campaign nearly ran out of money earlier this year and whose support has dropped dramatically from front-runner status in 2006. But McCain's dogged style and his strong stands on the Iraq war and other issues have caused some GOP voters to take another look. In mid-December, he got a boost with the endorsement of Joe Lieberman, who was the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000 and is now an independent senator from Connecticut. This could help McCain with independents, who can vote in either of the major party primaries in New Hampshire. But if McCain can't put together a victory there (he won the Granite State's primary in 2000), it's difficult to see how he will remain viable.

Also not to be counted out as a spoiler is Ron Paul, the Texas representative who has become a darling of libertarians and less-government conservatives around the country with his calls for withdrawal from Iraq and his support for slashing government programs far more deeply than his GOP rivals would. A measure of Paul's potential strength became clear when he raised about $6 million in a single day, December 16. This will give him the resources to campaign aggressively. He could draw from other maverick candidates, such as McCain and possibly Thompson.

The nomination process is sequential and starts with Iowa on January 3, until it reaches a crescendo on the megaprimary day of February 5. That's when more than 20 states will hold primaries or caucuses. It's very likely that the nominations will be locked up at that time, but political experts say that the fight could last into late winter or spring because both parties are so divided among the contenders.

For the Democrats, it's still Hillary Clinton's nomination to lose because of her strength with party regulars, her name identification, and her support from women, a cornerstone of the Democratic electorate. She could probably survive losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, as long as she stayed within a few percentage points of the winner and pulled out a victory in Florida, where she is popular. She is well positioned in the February 5 states.

Both Obama and Edwards need victories in Iowa to create momentum. If Clinton wins there, the nomination battle could be over for the Democrats.

For the GOP, five candidates have plausible paths to the nomination. Huckabee and Romney need wins or at least very strong showings in Iowa to remain in the top tier. Each hopes to use that state as a springboard to later success. McCain isn't expected to do well in Iowa, so he needs the momentum of a win in New Hampshire to keep going. He is also competitive with Romney and Huckabee in Michigan, which holds its primary January 15.

Thompson isn't registering well in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, but he hopes for a breakthrough in South Carolina on January 19. This could propel him into a strong showing in the Florida primary January 29 and set the stage for a breakthrough on February 5.

As for Giuliani, he is playing down the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire, where he lags badly. He is counting on Florida to give him momentum on January 29, a week before the megaprimary day of February 5. Giuliani's strategy has always been based on his winning a number of the big states that day, including New York, New Jersey, and California, and emerging on top of the delegate tally.