Is This Heaven?
Before heading out of the office for the end of the year, I'll play armchair pundit once more and analyze the state of the race with the caucuses a mere six days away. I'll leave New Hampshire and all roads beyond for the following week, as Iowa is about to become the center of the political universe.
Let's look first at the Democratic field given the fact that each of the contenders has placed a premium on winning the state. Polling data suggests that the race in Iowa remains a dead heat between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards. Clinton and Obama have topped all recent polls, but don't count out Edwards who finished a strong second here in 2004 and has made the Hawkeye State a second home ever since.
With the race so close, campaigns will place a premium on turnout, usually in the neighborhood of 10-20% of all eligible voters. Edwards has a legion of supporters who already went through the motions for him, but according to the LA Times-Bloomberg poll released this morning, Clinton's supporters are most likely to caucus among the big three. Edwards and Obama arguably have the best organizations in the state, but they are up against the most formidable Democratic vote machine in the last two decades of American politics.
So who wins? My money remains with Clinton, although I can certainly envision an Obama surprise. Edwards wins with bad weather, but the forecast is clear and cool, and a third place finish will doom his candidacy and possibly prompt an early withdrawal. A Clinton win restores her luster as the inevitable candidate, but an Obama surprise suggests all bets are off.
As for the rest of the field, their distance from the frontrunners is suggestive that this is little more than a three horse race, with the remaining five candidates battling to stay in the race. A fourth or fifth place finish is a must, and I expect Joe Biden and Bill Richardson, respectively, to claim these spots.
The Republican field is more complicated here and across the country. Polling data suggests that Mike Huckabee has overcome Mitt Romney as the frontrunner. The former Massachusetts Governor certainly has the superior organization of the two, and a comeback victory would make him tough to beat in New Hampshire and the ensuing contests. Romney also has the financial resources to run negative ads critical of his opponents (indeed he already is as we speak--Huckabee in Iowa, McCain in New Hampshire), and these could combine with Huckabee's acknowledged ramshackle organization to deliver a win to Mitt, not Mike.
The battle for number three here is also significant, but it is not the death knell that looms for the Democratic counterpart. Fred Thompson, John McCain, and Rudy Giuliani are competing for not the win, nor the place, but the show. Whoever emerges from this trio stands as the foremost alternative to Mitt and Mike as the field drifts to New England. Remember, winning the Iowa caucuses is probably not as important as meeting or exceeding expectations. A third place finish would attain the latter for any member of the triumvirate.
Who carries the elephants' mantle beyond the corn field of Iowa, you might ask? I won't quarrel with a plethora of polls that reveal a narrow, but growing, and even in some cases a double-digit lead for Huckabee, so I predict a narrow victory over Romney for the former Arkansas Governor. The ever-sought third-place showing goes to McCain, who is surging at the right time and may be most trusted to lead the world in this era of international terrorism after yesterday's assassination of Bhutto. Thompson bests Giuliani for 4th place as Rudy has rarely shown his face in the Heartland, making him ripe for a Ron Paul pickoff, further dooming his late-state strategy.
Time for me to sign off until I greet you on Jan. 2 from Cedar Rapids, IA. This pundit finally yields to the voters of Iowa, and wishes all of you a happy and safe new year.