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.
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.
Just as important, the country's menu of priority issues appears to be changing, with the economy growing as a concern and the Iraq war declining somewhat. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that 44 percent of voters say the economy and jobs will be the single most important issue in their choice for president, up from 29 percent in November. Iraq, where the U.S. military has been making gains, has dropped to 37 percent from 45 percent in the same period. If the economy turns sour, this trend could accelerate. And the shift could be bad news for the GOP, since voters tend to blame the incumbent president and his party for downturns.
Overall, 7 out of 10 Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, a finding that has remained steady for many months. This supports the conclusion that Americans are eager for something new in Washington and will vote for a change in the status quo next year.
Economic worries. But perhaps the most intriguing question is exactly what the country wants from the next president. "The country is doing pretty well but is suffering a remarkable degree of anxiety," says Al From, founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and a former adviser to Bill Clinton. Americans, polls show, are worried about the possibility of a recession, about the affordability and accessibility of healthcare, the mortgage crisis, and other issues, even if their personal situations seem to be going relatively well. "There's going to be a premium on problem solving," says From.
But other Americans prefer a president who doesn't waver on principle and doesn't compromise too much. "Many voters want someone who will stand up for them," says a former adviser to a Republican president. Of course, this could be a recipe for more stalemate and confrontation in the capital.
Fortunately, the murky political situation should be quite a bit clearer in the next month. Once the votes are counted in Iowa and New Hampshire, the unpredictable campaign of 2008 will begin to sort itself out.