Clinton Takes a Shaky Lead in Iowa

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Charlie Neibergall / AP

Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton speaks to residents of New Hampton, Iowa, Oct. 7, 2007

The political world is abuzz over new polling data from the Des Moines Register, Iowa's largest newspaper, with the state's presidential caucuses, now just three months away. But before going into the buzz, here are a few obligatory, throat-clearing caveats.

It is notoriously difficult to obtain accurate polling information to gauge the Iowa electorate and predict the outcome of the vote. The number of voters who actually turn out to participate in Iowa's unique caucus system is relatively small, and many caucus voters do not make up their minds until after the December holidays.

This election season such polls are even more problematic, with national front-runners from New York — Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani for the Republicans — both significantly weaker in Iowa than they are in other states. Several candidates, most notably Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), are trying to effectively change the makeup of the Iowa electorate by bringing new voters (who are less likely to show up in current polls) into the process.

Also adding to the confusion: Iowans have yet to finalize a date for the caucuses. It will likely take place the first week of January, but Iowa is still jockeying for position and influence with other states who want to vote early in the nomination process. The campaigns do not have a clear sense of how much importance the national media will attach to the results of the caucuses.

Nevertheless, there is no question that Iowa's outcome will be hugely influential in determining the parties' nominees, even more so for the Democrats, whose Iowa winner will get a huge blast of momentum heading into subsequent contests. That is why the Register's numbers are causing such a ruckus.

On the Democratic side, given the poll's margin of error, the race remains a three-way contest, but the paper's front-page headline shows Clinton ahead with 29%, displacing Edwards, now at 23%, from the top spot. Obama is at 22%. The remaining candidates, including New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, are much lower in the ranking. Clinton, Edwards and Obama have each been first at one time or another in recent polls and their strategists are resolutely cautious when evaluating their chances and respectful when appraising their rivals.

All three leading Democrats are pouring resources into Iowa, with multi-day bus trips and field offices all over the state, as well as huge local staffs. Obama so far has spent the most on television advertising, but Clinton is ramping up on that front too.

Clinton's aides say they are happy with polling data that indicates that Iowa Democrats view her as the strongest candidate on issues such as leadership, experience, toughness, intelligence, and electability, and showing strong support from caucus-goers aged 55 years and older, who turn out most reliably.

However, the Register poll also reveals some candidate weaknesses. Clinton is still seen as polarizing. Voters have questions about Obama's experience. Edwards' expensive haircuts and hedge fund ties have muddied his image as a champion of the middle class. Given those problems and the intense competition in the state, it is unlikely that any candidate will be able to achieve a decisive lead before caucus day.

Furthermore, Clinton's advantage is statistically small enough to allow plenty of room for Obama and Edwards to catch up. This they must do to halt her methodical march to the nomination, since Clinton's current strength in New Hampshire and in national polls mean she must be stopped in Iowa. Edwards maintains substantial Iowa support from his 2004 campaign (he finished a strong second that year and has spent more days in the state than has any other candidate), while Obama is from neighboring Illinois and has some of Iowa's most skilled operatives on his team.

Indeed, the dean of the Iowa press corps, Register columnist David Yepsen, blogged on Sunday that the latest poll is bad news for Clinton — as well as the G.O.P. front-runner in Iowa, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — because being ahead makes her a bigger target and raises the expectations that she will win the caucuses, thus potentially reducing the value of a victory. (History has shown that coming in second but with perceived momentum can be better than finishing first: George McGovern finished a strong second to Edwin Muskie and went on to the nomination in 1972; Jimmy Carter in 1976 came in second to "unaffiliated.")

Compared to the Democrats, Republican candidates are not putting as much focus on Iowa, instead looking ahead to New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida as key G.O.P. contests (as a result, naturally, the media is concentrating more on the Democratic battle in the Hawkeye State). Still, Iowans are getting ample attention from Republican candidates, and strong performances in the caucuses will provide some welcome momentum.

The Register's poll shows Romney is still ahead with 29% of the vote, after spending more time and television money there than any other G.O.P. candidate in the race. But for the Republicans, Iowa is almost as unsettled as the race is nationally, with the ultimate pecking order still unclear. Beneath the top-line number, the poll found that "among those who have made a [Republican] choice, about three-fourths say they could still be persuaded to support another candidate." That will give hope to former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson (18%), former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (12%), Giuliani (11%), and even Arizona Senator John McCain (7%).

As Giuliani has declined from the last Register poll in May, Thompson has stormed into second place in the survey, even though his late-launched campaign has gotten off to a shaky start in the eyes of analysts and even some of his own supporters. The poll found that many Iowans not currently planning to vote for Thompson are open to supporting his candidacy, and he generates strong interest among the middle-aged voters who also historically turn out in large numbers on caucus night.

Ordinarily, winning the Iowa caucuses (or doing well enough to exceed the all-important expectations set by the media) requires, according to the old political truism, the ability to "organize, organize, organize" and then get "hot at the end." Among the Democrats, all three major candidates have built traditional statewide organizations. Among the Republicans, only Romney has fulfilled that task. The other G.O.P. candidates are aiming to do well enough without putting the resources into a full-fledged operation, and hope Romney stumbles on his own.

In both parties, there so far has been little negative campaigning (including no negative television ads or direct mail from the major candidates) and limited advertising overall. That will almost certainly come before the end of the year.

But perhaps most important is that "hot at the end" element. To date, on both sides, the candidates have been slogging through the mundane motions of campaigning, rather than elevating their rhetoric and challenging their rivals. So far, no single candidate has burst forth with a distinct voice and message to stockpile and consolidate support. So on this warm fall weekend, the crisp snapshot of autumn poll numbers are, by default, what everyone is talking about.