For moneyed Dems, Iowa still urgent

The top candidates in the Democratic presidential field are flush with cash, so money won’t be the reason they drop out. Despite their hefty bank accounts or celebrity status, however, all have made it clear that the early states are crucial to their success.

Iowa, Jan. 3 — Throw out the polls. This is a three-way tie, and everybody agrees at this stage that the winner is the person who can turn out his or her supporters and convince them to stay loyal once they get to the high school gymnasiums.

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With about two weeks to go, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) appears to be enjoying the most momentum, but there is little to no daylight between him and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). The Iowa race is the clear focus of each campaign, with both teams rolling out every surrogate imaginable (from Oprah to Magic Johnson) and trying to cover every inch of frozen real estate in the state.

For Clinton, the challenge has become more clear in recent days as both she and former President Bill Clinton, who wasn’t a player in Iowa in 1992, have acknowledged that they don’t have the kind of built-in organizational infrastructure they enjoy in New Hampshire.

The campaign is pushing hard to put that organization in place, as most of Clinton’s national staff has reportedly packed their parkas and headed to Iowa. The campaign is also pushing hard to squeeze momentum out of The Des Moines Register’s endorsement of Clinton.

Obama’s challenge, like so many also-rans in the past, is to actually get young voters to show up and participate in the terrifically confusing process that is the Iowa Democratic caucuses. The senator’s campaign insists that it has also built a traditional organization in the state, and it has Iowa campaign veterans in place who lend credence to that assertion.

Former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) cannot be overlooked. As President Clinton noted, Edwards has essentially been living in Iowa since the 2004 election ended. He jumped into the ranks of legitimacy with a surprise second-place showing that year, and he continues to enjoy a warm following. Even his aides and family have acknowledged that Iowa is crucial to his chances. Edwards doesn’t enjoy the Fort Knox-like bank accounts of Clinton and Obama, so he needs a win in Iowa to survive.

The second-tier candidates and the nature of the process are probably the biggest question marks in the state. If Sens. Joseph Biden (Del.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.) or New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson fail to reach viability in a significant number of precincts, where will their supporters go? It’s not unreasonable to think Biden’s and Dodd’s supporters’ second choices are Dodd and Biden, two candidates mocked in some quarters for being hard to tell apart.

Dodd enjoys the weighty backing and organizational support of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which propelled Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) to an Iowa win in 2004, and both Biden and Richardson have amassed noteworthy endorsements.

Supporters of these candidates might end up deciding the winner in Iowa when forced to pick their second choices under the caucus system.

“The second choice of supporters of the second-tier candidates can be a matter of political life and death for those candidates,” Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University, said.

New Hampshire, Jan. 8 —
In 2004, New Hampshire wasn’t a factor for Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), who dropped out of the race after a poor showing in Iowa. Edwards could face the same fate, although his campaign insisted Wednesday he is running a national campaign. Clinton and Obama, by contrast, have much more money and a lot of support in New Hampshire that ensures they will be dueling there just as they have in Iowa.

The Clintons enjoy a lot of holdover good will in the state where Bill Clinton earned the “Comeback Kid” moniker in 1992, but Obama is polling strongly with the crucial independent bloc.

Obama also has the support of the state’s two congressional members, but the recent comments about Obama’s past drug use by Clinton’s former state campaign chairman Billy Shaheen, who was ousted over the remarks, may have had an impact, if Tuesday’s polls showing Obama’s momentum slowing are to be believed. New Hampshire voters take electability seriously, so an Obama or Clinton win in Iowa could ease whatever doubts Granite State voters have about the winning candidate.

For the rest of the field, getting to New Hampshire after Iowa would be a victory in and of itself. Iowa might well start thinning out the herd right off the bat.

Michigan, Jan. 15 and Nevada, Jan. 19 —
Since Michigan was stripped of all its delegates by the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and almost all of the candidates have withdrawn from the ballot, the results will largely be meaningless on the Democratic side.

What remains to be seen is just how important Nevada’s first early caucuses will be. The sense right now is that if one candidate were to sweep the first two states, then that candidate would enjoy late but important bandwagon support from Nevada’s state unions. The relatively untested Nevada caucus-goers would likely be in the mood to vote for a winner. If the first two states are split, then Nevada becomes a free-for-all. Clinton enjoys celebrity status and strong poll numbers in the state, but Edwards has pushed hard for labor support there. If Edwards beats expectations in Iowa, at least enough to compete in New Hampshire, then he could be a player in the desert.

South Carolina, Jan. 26 — In their first Southern test, Obama and Clinton will continue to fight hard for black voters, who will likely comprise the make-or-break bloc for either candidate in the state. If Edwards has made it this far and still has money and some sense of viability, he might be able to make a late push in the state where he was born.

That makes House Democratic Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) the most popular guy in the state. Clyburn’s office repeated this week that he does not expect to endorse any of the candidates, but that sure doesn’t mean they won’t work for his — and his constituents’ — support.

Florida, Jan. 29 — At this stage of the game, if any of the top three have swept the early states, they will project a healthy sense of momentum and inevitability. Since the DNC has barred them from campaigning in Florida, they’ll need it.

Despite the committee’s penalties on the Sunshine State, Democratic voters will still turn out and make their preference know. Given its importance in the general election, Florida’s results will still be watched and noted.

Super Duper Tuesday, Feb. 5 — Obama and Clinton have d­elegate-rich Illinois and New York as home-court advantages, while the California jackpot is on the table. The biggest winner on Feb. 5 is likely to effectively end the process. A party desperate to win back the White House would look none too kindly on a candidate who stretched his or her campaign further if it appeared to be for ego’s sake.