High Stakes in Low Numbers
To figure out the real importance of Iowa, look beyond the winners.
A win obviously won't secure the nomination for anyone in either party, but a sound defeat could be fatal to at least two leading contenders: Obama and Huckabee. (Romney probably belongs on that list, but it's hard to write off a candidate with the deep pockets Romney has who going into a friendlier state just a few days later. But if he finishes more than 5 points behind Huckabee, it's pretty hard to see how he recovers -- even is he's willing to write checks deep into February.)
Huckabee could have a tough time surviving past Iowa even if he wins. A loss there would almost certainly be a body blow. His surge in Iowa was impressive and made him everybody's favorite uncle. But his missteps in recent days -- the now you see it now you don't attack ad and the ham-fisted attempt to use a global crises (the Bhutto assassination) to shore up his get-tough-on-illegal immigrants credentials -- make him vulnerable to charges of not being ready for prime time. If he wins in Iowa, they could weigh him down.
A close second for Obama might keep him chugging for a few more states, but if he couldn't light a fire and sustain it in Iowa, he won't be able to elsewhere.
The most interesting results may really be in the third and fourth spots -- especially in the GOP race. Given the weaknesses of Romney and Huckabee, strong showings by John McCain, who virtually ignored Iowa, or Fred Thompson could give them new life. McCain is already improving in New Hampshire -- where he has put most of his marbles -- and a push from Iowa may give him just the momentum he needs. Beating out McCain could earn Thompson second looks from voters in upcoming primary states -- especially if Romney loses and voters in New Hampshire and elsewhere want to consider alternatives that seem more electable than Huckabee. But Thompson would have to follow a win with some freshness and vigor that he has yet to display.
Edwards would have to finish first or a strong second -- or at least be just a point or two behind the winner -- to have much chance of remaining competitive. A surprise third place finish by a Dodd, Biden or Richardson -- or even a strong fourth if the top three contenders are neck and neck -- could make voters take notice. That would be especially true if Clinton gets beaten soundly. In that case, any of those three could be counted on to try to succeed where she would have failed -- to argue that their credentials make them far more equipped to deal with a perilous world than either Edwards (whose only political experience is one term in the Senate) or Obama (who is in the middle of his first Senate term).