And They're Off! Calling the Presidential Horserace

As the current era in American politics, marked by widespread dislike of the old Republican president and deep disappointment in the new Democratic congress, winds to a close, a new era is fitfully emerging in the midst of geopolitical crisis and a wide open presidential race in both parties.

Fittingly, given the level of general confusion, it does so first in one of the foggiest political contests possible, the Iowa presidential caucuses, coming to a head tomorrow in unprecedented fashion immediately after a lengthy holiday season.

Let's look at scenarios for the leading candidates in both parties for Iowa, the New Hampshire primary five days later, and beyond. Bearing in mind that the polling during holidays, as over weekends, is very suspect, at best.

Before getting to the scenarios for each candidate below, a little primer on the polls. Two underlying caveats about the polling this year: The Iowa caucuses have been preceded by what are essentially two five-day weekends in a row, first over Christmas, then over New Year's. Weekend polling is always highly suspect. Just who do you suppose is going to take the time, or even be around, to answer a pollster's questions on a weekend night? Many campaigns don't even bother to poll on weekends for that reason, and when it is done, the numbers are always regarded with suspicion. Add to that the unprecedented holiday factor - when Iowa was first in the presidential nomination contests of 1984, it took place on February 20th - and it's a formula for rampant confusion.

Prior to the campaign entering its holiday fog bank, Barack Obama was headed for victory on the Democratic side, and Mike Huckabee was headed for victory on the Republican side. Coming out of it, according to the most respected poll of the Iowa caucuses, the Des Moines Register Poll, completed over the weekend, both those men -- Iowa dark horses a few months ago -- were on top. Here are the numbers. Democrats: Barack Obama 32%, Hillary Clinton 25%, John Edwards 24%. Republicans: Mike Huckabee 32%, Mitt Romney 26%, John McCain 13%. The other candidates in both parties were all in single digits. Other recent polls have different results, though they frequently have Obama and Huckabee leading. One other relevant point about the Register poll: It can help build momentum in itself.

The Register poll, as you see from the link, has a new model anticipating higher numbers of independents and first-timers participating in the Democratic presidential caucuses than have participated in the past. That accounts for Obama's rather large lead over Hillary Clinton, and over John Edwards, who is appealing to core Democrats rather than independents. Is the Register correct in assuming that Iowa this time out will behave more like a primary than a low turnout caucus? We'll know soon enough. It would certainly be much more reflective of the changing electorate around the country. Over a fifth of US voters are independents, a doubling of the proportion of independents in the American electorate since Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush in 1992. Which, not coincidentally, also marked the further development of hyperpartisanship in America. The importance of independents in the New Hampshire primary is why Obama has eliminated Clinton's lead there in most polls.

BARACK OBAMA. If he wins Iowa, he wins New Hampshire. If he wins New Hampshire, he has a good chance to win the next Democratic contest, which is Nevada, and the one after that, in South Carolina, going into the Mega-Tuesday contests in California, Illinois, New York and other states. In other words, he is off and running; Obama is easily the best-funded challenger candidate ever, with hundreds of thousands of proven contributors. If he wins Iowa. If he's second, it depends on who he finishes behind. If Hillary Clinton ekes out a win, that should solidify her position in New Hampshire, where she is already being stiffly challenged by Obama. They're in a statistical dead heat in a number of recent polls. If he finishes second behind Edwards, that means Hillary is third. That could be a shattering blow for her.

HILLARY CLINTON. If she wins Iowa, she should hold on in New Hampshire. And if she wins New Hampshire, she should win the nomination, given that she still has a diminished lead in Nevada and is either ahead or in a draw with Obama in South Carolina. If she loses to Obama in Iowa and New Hampshire, her campaign will continue battling. The Clinton machine is deep and experienced. She and her team are skilled in the black arts of negative campaigning. But momentum will be against her. If she loses to Edwards in Iowa, she might still pull out a win in New Hampshire, as Edwards may then pull from Obama there. That would set up an unstable three-way contest for the rest of the month.

JOHN EDWARDS. If he wins Iowa, he might surge in New Hampshire, where he is currently running behind Obama and Clinton, but within a distant striking distance. But Obama is far better positioned to win New Hampshire. If Edwards loses Iowa, he probably becomes a spoiler for Obama, helping the Clintons. If Edwards does manage to break through in both Iowa and New Hampshire, he is somewhat hamstrung down the line because, with his campaign unable to keep up with the top two in fundraising he is taking federal matching funds, which limits how much he can spend. He's getting around that in Iowa with an "independent" 527 campaign committee, run by his former campaign manager. But that's the sort of thing that can get real dicey real fast.

THE OTHER DEMOCRATS. Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd are the only others with measurable support -- with apologies to the very nice Dennis Kucinich and the amusing Mike Gravel -- and their support is in single digits in almost all contests. In another season, each might be a major contender. But in this season, running against two superstars in Hillary and Obama, and an already experienced and polished national candidate in Edwards, although they've had moments -- and Biden looks prescient for his constant warnings about Pakistan -- they haven't been able to break through.

MIKE HUCKABEE. If Huckabee wins Iowa, he almost certainly won't win New Hampshire. But he could guarantee that John McCain wins New Hampshire. That's because the candidate who'd led virtually all year in Iowa -- Mitt Romney -- has predicated his campaign success on winning Iowa and New Hampshire. Why wouldn't Huckabee win New Hampshire? There simply aren't enough evangelicals there. But Huckabee would be well positioned to win in the South, where he already leads in many states. He would also have a shot in Michigan and Nevada, two early contests on the Republican side. (The January 15th Michigan primary is not being contested on the Democratic side, following Democratic National Committee guidelines attempting to bring order to the nomination process.)

Did the somewhat gaffe-prone Huckabee ("What NIE on Iran?") screw up on New Year's Eve when he unveiled a hard-hitting counterattack ad on Mitt Romney at a press conference only to announce that he had just decided not to use it because he's against negative campaigning? The conventional national media certainly thinks so. But the Iowa press seems to have mostly presented the story in very straightforward fashion. And somehow I doubt most Iowans over yet another holiday paid much attention to what Joe Klein et al have to say.

MITT ROMNEY. If Romney comes back to win Iowa, he still faces a big challenge from John McCain in New Hampshire. McCain, who began his campaign as the Republican frontrunner, something he never seemed to be comfortable with, melted down first with independents and moderates on Iraq, recovered somewhat, then melted down with conservatives on immigration. Only to recover again. Romney, a polished performer, is by far the best-funded Republican candidate. If he wins Iowa, and even if he loses New Hampshire, he can battle back in Michigan, Nevada, and South Carolina. (It's not clear how seriously Republican caucuses in Wyoming will be taken.)

JOHN MCCAIN. The Vietnam War hero and veteran senator could pull a surprise third in Iowa, where he's spent little time campaigning. That would give him a further boost in New Hampshire five days later. But it's not clear he needs it. After his campaign melted down over the aforementioned issues, and his spending over 90% of what he'd raised, he began running a low-budget, below-the-radar campaign focused mainly on New Hampshire. With just enough forays elsewhere to keep his name in play.

But since his multiple meltdowns as a candidate, McCain has been helped by the relative success of the military surge in Iraq, which may be stabilizing the country enough to provide the necessary space to develop a sustainable political settlement there. McCain called for something like this for years. Now he looks right, a good thing to be on one of the most divisive issues in recent American history. If he wins New Hampshire, he has a good chance to build up a head of steam in Michigan, which he won in 2000, Nevada, where he led earlier, and South Carolina.

RUDY GIULIANI. One of the oddities of this campaign is that I'm not mentioning the man who in some ways is still the national Republican frontrunner, and who -- like McCain -- runs quite well against the Democrats. This points up the danger of his strategy, which is to focus on big states a few weeks later in the process, such as Florida on January 29th and California, New York et al on February 5th. If you're not a big player at the front end, it's hard to retain your clout down the line. The hero of 9/11 was trying for a distant third in Iowa, but that looks now like it will go to McCain or Fred Thompson, who has rolled his remaining dice there. Giuliani was running a competitive second in New Hampshire, but has faded there as McCain has risen even as he spent heavily on TV ads.

Why has he faded? His problems are two-fold: His close association with his ex-New York police chief Bernie Kerik, now indicted on federal corruption charges, and the morphing of the national security issue away from military confrontation with Iran. Giuliani has to hope that the chaotic situation surrounding the candidates running ahead of him in Iowa and New Hampshire, coupled with his national fame, allows him to surge from Florida onward through California. But his numbers in California, as they have nationally, have slid.

FRED THOMPSON. The former Law & Order star is trying for a distant third in Iowa to jump-start his campaign. I've written about his problems several times before. A third there won't make him competitive in New Hampshire, but it could provide him with enough relevance to stay alive for South Carolina and hope for stumbles by Huckabee, who has in large part supplanted Thompson's Southern strategy.

RON PAUL. The phenomenon of Ron Paul is frankly somewhat bewildering. Paul is also in the running for that distant third in Iowa. You would hope he would be if for no other reason than that he has apparently raised some $20 million in the last quarter of 2007, more than any other Republican, putting him, at least for the moment, in the Clinton and Obama class as a fundraiser. Paul polled for most of the year as a virtual asterisk, only to start rising towards the high single digits in Iowa and New Hampshire. Are his fiercely libertarian and anti-military interventionist supporters merely a small but exceptionally energetic and financially generous bunch? Or are they "off the grid," not responsive to traditional polling? Paul might be third in Iowa. He might even be third in New Hampshire.

The only other remaining Republican candidate is Duncan Hunter, a congressman from my state of California, was the very active chairman of the House Armed Services Committee before the Democratic a year ago. With a son in Iraq, he cares deeply about security issues. But he is not a factor in the race.