The Candidates' Iowa Problem

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Joshua Lott / Reuters; Mark Hirsch / Getty

Mitt Romney, left, and John Edwards

The state of Iowa has always treasured its unique role — and corresponding degree of attention — in kicking off the Presidential election nominating process, so it can't possibly like the way the 2008 race seems to be shaping up. A little over a week after an aide to Hillary Clinton dared to suggest that the Democratic candidate skip the Iowa caucuses entirely, two contenders for the Republican nomination said that they would forgo the Iowa Straw Poll in August, a ritual stop on the G.O.P. path. Both Rudy Giuliani's organization and that of John McCain say that they still plan to remain competitive in Iowa's caucuses. However, in a campaign that's already seen an unprecedented number of states move up the dates of their primaries to earlier in the year, these latest announcements suggest that the importance of winning Iowa — as well as how one goes about winning it — has fundamentally been altered.

Over 20 states have already shifted, or are considering shifting, their primaries to February 5, 2008, which some observers say could result in the Iowa caucuses actually being held as early as Christmas. But it's not clear that Iowa can do anything to maintain its once unchallenged influence. In the age of the half-hour news cycle, candidates are asking themselves if winning Iowa (whether in December or January) will still give them the kind of momentum they need to succeed on a much wider scale so soon after. What's more, the character of the "Iowa campaign" has changed considerably in the past decade. Once an old-fashioned retail campaign dominated by a series of living room visits, where candidates stood or fell on their personal interaction with individual voters, Iowa events now look increasingly like events everywhere else, where success or failure increasingly relies on the sheer quantity and reach of a rally or media buy. Says an adviser to a G.O.P. campaign: "You can't shake everyone's hand anymore. No one can spend as much time there as they used to — and [it's] not about time anymore, it's about money." Currently, no major candidate seems ready to write off Iowa completely, but everyone is placing slightly different bets on the state that no one in campaigns past would dare ignore.

The Democrats:

John Edwards: Of all the candidates in both races, Edwards has placed the most emphasis on Iowa. He's spent 40 days in the state since November of 2004, and polls show a solid 25-30% chunk of support for him. But while other Democratic candidates seem ready essentially to cede the caucus victory to him, that also raises the bar for how big a win it has to be. The closer the second place winner, the less momentum Edwards will have. Worse yet, he'll have spent a good deal of his resources there, not so much money but rather time and effort. One possible bad sign for his Iowa chances, however, is the installation of former Howard Dean advisor Joe Trippi as de facto campaign manager; it was Trippi whose angry style, in part, helped undo the Vermont Governor in 2004.

Hillary Clinton: Her aide's memo aside, Clinton insists she's "in it to win it" in Iowa as well. And though she's visited the state less frequently than any of the front-runners (just seven times), she's racked up an impressive local ground organization, including the recent hire of Teresa Vilmain, onetime adviser to Governor (and big Hillary backer) Tom Vilsack. The danger for Clinton is any result that throws off her carefully crafted "presumed nominee" narrative. How close a second is close enough? The latest Des Moines Register poll has her at third.

Barack Obama: The Illinois Senator has the least to lose, at least in where he finishes. Says one observer, "It's not even a race for second so much as trying to close the gap." But Obama could suffer the most if the entire Democratic field winds up conforming to expectations and the Republicans provide more drama. If, for instance, the fluidity of the Republican field — and their rather more tepid commitment to Iowa — creates an opportunity for an insurgent such as Mike Huckabee to do unexpectedly well, there's not gonna be a lot of attention for stories about Obama's close second or third.

The Republicans:

Mitt Romney: He's spent the most time there of all the Republican front-runners, and more money than anyone else in both parties — almost a million dollars in media buys across the state, designed to "introduce" and define the candidate before anyone else gets a chance. So far, it's seems to be working: An average of all the current Iowa polls has the relative newcomer with a slim lead over John McCain, who skipped the state entirely in 2000. But, as with Edwards, Romney's conspicuous embrace of Iowa means he has to do more than simply win. What's more, his lead there is more precarious than that of Edwards. His high polling comes in a vacuum — no other campaign has yet launched a serious negative attack on him in the state.

John McCain: The conventional wisdom is that Iowa voters still resent McCain for not competing in their state in 2000, but the Senator's problems are more current than that. Iowans bristle at his support of immigration reform and, even more important, he has yet to spend enough time there to try and counteract such negative impressions. His lack of funds and relatively sparse number of visits, however, is somewhat balanced by a formidable organization, one that includes Iowa native Terry Nelson as campaign manager. McCain's decision to stay out of the straw poll is largely an economic one — enabled politically by Giuliani's choice — but having already raised expectations with some initial visits to the state, he can't afford to completely ignore Iowa this time around. A win there means his shot at the nomination is suddenly more likely than it's been in a year; a close second means he's set to take New Hampshire and the momentum that comes with it to South Carolina, where he's also strong; and a third-place showing means he's done.

Rudy Giuliani: Six visits to the state show that Giuliani at least knows where Iowa is. But as a national figure who polls remarkably well, "America's Mayor" has made no secret of his emphasis on Florida and other "Super-Duper Tuesday" states over the traditional first three; strategists in rival campaigns simply note that garnering the nomination this way would upset the calendar once and for all. To the extent that he does decide to take on the state, Giuliani's chances in Iowa are hampered by a slight tin ear for the rhythms of the heartland: it's not just his support of abortion rights and his colorful personal life, but missteps like his advance staff reneging on an event with an Iowa farmer who turned out not to be rich enough to help illustrate Giuliani's stance in support of abolishing the estate tax.

Fred Thompson: Thompson is unlikely to participate in the Straw Poll — it simply comes too soon after the birth of his official campaign. But he has a strong incentive to compete in the caucuses. With no groundwork or organization, he still manages to cut Romney's top-place polling lead in half. A Thompsonless poll by the Des Moines Register has Romney in first with 30 percent. Include Thompson, as in an American Research Group poll, and Romney drops to 16 percent. McCain and Giuliani, by contrast, actually benefit from including Thompson in polls. Thompson has signaled his intention to run an atypical race, depending largely on the Internet and other media rather than actually traveling, and that approach that could sit badly with Iowans who expect face time. But a minimal investment of time would be well worth it if it does enough to knock out Romney and narrow the field of social conservatives.