Iowa Winners Count on Momentum

Next week's New Hampshire vote will test the durability of several candidacies.

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By 9:30 this morning, only hours after winning the Iowa Democratic caucuses, Barack Obama told supporters that a win in the New Hampshire primaries would put him in the White House.

That might be putting the cart slightly ahead of the horse, but the Illinois senator is at present on the inside track for the Democrats after a strong turnout from young voters carried the first-in-the-nation contest. John Edwards placed second, just barely ahead of Hillary Clinton.

"What Iowa tell us is that voters are responding to the message of change from Democrats, and they want it now," says Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the Edwards campaign. A record number of Democrats, more than 220,000, participated in the caucuses.

For the Republicans, Mike Huckabee, the former Baptist preacher and ex-Arkansas governor, won emphatic support from evangelical Christians to win the state by 9 percentage points over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who spent millions of dollars to woo voters there.

"It's a tough day for the Romney camp—they hoped to do much better than they did," says one Republican strategist. John McCain and Fred Thompson tied for third.

New Hampshire votes on Tuesday, meaning that yesterday's winners must work quickly to convert those wins into momentum. Granite State Republicans, according to the most recent polls, have been gravitating toward McCain since Thanksgiving, which makes his strong showing in Iowa even more important. Romney, whose defeat in Iowa is a major blow to his campaign given the resources he invested there, is running second in New Hampshire and closing fast, with Huckabee further back in the pack.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is still the front-runner, though fallout from the Obama win could upend those estimates. She's leading by some 21 points nationwide, according to averages of polling data gathered by Real Clear Politics. There is little historic precedent for a candidate with a lead that large to lose a party nomination.

In Nevada, Clinton leads Obama by more than 20 points, ditto for California, Florida, and Michigan (where Obama and Edwards are not on the ballot). In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, it's closer to a 30-point lead. Those polls are likely to change at least somewhat, as supporters of Sens. Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd, who dropped their bids in the wake of poor showings in Iowa, will realign themselves with other candidates.

Then comes February 5, when 24 states hold their nominating contests.

In political marketing terms, that means retail must turn wholesale.

"The leading candidates have gotten to know everyone in Iowa and New Hampshire almost personally, but soon those personal contacts will be less important," says Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. "The whole idea for all the campaigns in these early contests [is] to still be standing when the race really turns national on February 5."

Nationwide on the Republican side, things are far more uncertain. Huckabee leads in South Carolina; Rudy Giuliani has a slight lead in Florida and larger ones in California, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania; Romney is leading in Michigan. And in Nevada, which holds its vote January 19, polls show a statistical tie among the leading GOP contestants.

Giuliani, it should be noted, is still the nationwide GOP leader, albeit with a lead that is shrinking. He is banking on those late contests, focusing his efforts on large, delegate-rich states in the hopes of avoiding the street fights in the overcrowded early states. It's an untested strategy, but with the chaotic Iowa results, the GOP nomination is still very much an open contest.

As the focus shifts to New Hampshire, some things to consider:

  • For the Republicans, the state has far fewer evangelical Christians, which means Huckabee will have to appeal to a broader audience. McCain is well liked there, though polls show Romney doing well. A loss for Romney there, GOP poll watchers say, could be catastrophic for his campaign.
  • For Democrats, New Hampshire is also a critical contest, especially for Edwards. He cast his lot heavily in Iowa and lost, which makes New Hampshire a must-win, pollsters say. Obama has a real chance to unseat Clinton as the favorite with a big win on Tuesday. Clinton, meanwhile, is looking for a win there to echo her husband's 1992 performance, which earned him the title as the Democratic "Comeback Kid."