Messages from Iowa

Whatever happens, the nomination battle won't become a marathon. The reason: Money -- only a couple of candidates have enough of it

By Lee Walczak

As Iowa voters prepare to trudge to schools, churches, and living rooms Monday evening for the state's Presidential caucuses, Establishment Democrats and the media elites are more than a bit rattled. Nothing in Iowa is going according to the script. On the eve of the caucuses, polls show long-time front-runners Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean suddenly have company on the top tier from the surging candidacies of John Kerry and John Edwards.

Breathless TV reporters talk up a four-way tie in the Hawkeye State, and a new Des Moines Register poll released Jan. 18 shows that Kerry and Edwards, formerly known as the "sub-rosa senators," may be overtaking Dean and Gephardt. Naturally, speculation is building that Iowa may produce a surprise outcome in which four candidates come away with such even support that no clear victor can be crowned.

Indeed, some commentators are steeling viewers for a long, tough nominating march, one that stretches to March and beyond. Of course, such a marathon would be costly to the feuding Democratic contenders, who have bloodied themselves in Iowa and are preparing to do the same in New Hampshire a week later. A Bataan Death March would leave the eventual winner so beaten up, the experts opine, that he would be easy prey for George W. Bush's $200 million reelection machine.

It's time for a reality check, folks. Just as much of the pre-Iowa commentary was off-base, a lot of the current speculation is equally misguided. Here are some data points to consider as the Democratic race prepares to move beyond Iowa to New Hampshire (Jan. 27) and the South (starting on Feb. 3). If some of this disturbs George Stephanopoulos & Co., well, sorry George. Go have another latté and take a respite from the TV hype machine.

Look Ma, Four Winners! It's still somewhat unlikely that Iowa will result in a four-way tie with a quartet of smiling victors and no major casualties. Precaucus surveys are a rough gauge of "beauty-contest" sentiment, which explains their volatility. Only the most committed partisans will endure the lengthy caucus process of meetings and more meetings, backroom deals with erstwhile foes, and impassioned speechifying by surrogates.

True, Kerry and Edwards have surged, but the duo lacks the ground organization needed to harvest all of that popular sentiment. Gephardt's legions of industrial union backers and Dean's cadre of idealistic liberals and antiwar activists are the best equipped to score on Jan. 19. Can Kerry and Edwards still come out on top? Sure, but that would take a collapse of support for the former front-runners. Nothing like that has happened -- yet.

Marathon? What Marathon? Is a lengthy struggle looming for the Dems if Dean stumbles in Iowa and New Hampshire, Wesley Clark and Kerry rise in the Northeast, and Edwards rallies in the South? Don't bet on it. It takes a national field organization and tons of money to fight an extended campaign much beyond the Feb. 3 primaries in South Carolina, Missouri, and Arizona. Only two candidates at the moment have the tools: Dean and Clark.

Kerry has mortgaged his Boston home to pour everything into Iowa media, and a first or second there could give him hope in New Hampshire -- where he has slipped just behind current No. 2 Clark. Gephardt is broke, while Joe Lieberman (who, like Clark, skipped Iowa) and Edwards are running on fumes. Who has the dough to blanket New Hampshire with ads? Dean and Clark.

Oh, and one other thing. New Hampshirites like nothing better than ignoring the Iowa result, if not countermanding it. So beware tales of the big bounce.

Live by Turnout, Die by Turnout. All winter, the Deanies have claimed that their Internet-driven campaign was going to boost participation dramatically as the Vermont populist energized tuned-out voters. Iowa party officials are expecting a record turnout. The state is home to some 600,000 registered Democrats, and there are predictions that more than 120,000 of them may cast votes on caucus night.

Only one problem for Dean: If lots of those surprise attendees are pragmatic voters who have decided that electability is more important than ideological purity, Dean could be toast. In this case, Iowa becomes the functional equivalent of a primary, and the crush of new voters could sink Dean rather than loft him toward the nomination.

If the trend plays out elsewhere, Democrats are sending a message: In a field in which even the self-styled centrists have moved well left of Bill Clinton-style New Democratic doctrine, they can forget small policy differences and settle on the guy who has the best shot at defeating Bush.

What's with Dean? This one is so crystal-clear that even the pundits have it right. Dean became so intoxicated with his front-runner status that he spent too much time on rolling out big-name endorsements and trying to be the Serene Dean as his foes ripped into him in debates and on paid TV. Weeks of relentless pounding by Gephardt, Kerry, et al took its toll.

Dean finally responded by going back to the antiwar themes that have long propelled his candidacy, figuring that antiwar Iowa would renew its love affair with him. And it may work. But if the dominant Democratic sentiment shifts from partisan fervor to electability, Dean will suffer, and the two candidates running on their résumés -- Clark and Kerry -- will benefit.

Is This Edwards Guy for Real? I dunno, Bill Clinton pulled off a similar come-from-nowhere act. But to me, it still looks like a long-shot for the earnest North Carolina senator. He needs a third- or, better-still, second-place finish in Iowa to kick-start his campaign. But with his support concentrated in rural parts of the state, it may be difficult to prevail.

Edwards' rise in Iowa is attributable to two factors, neither of which may be in play elsewhere: He drew a sharp contrast to other candidates' negativism by positioning himself as Mr. Positive, thereby appealing to Iowa's goo-goo voters (i.e., good-government, C-SPAN-watching, civic-minded folk), and he won the endorsement of the Register, the state's leading newspaper.

Edwards does have a smattering of support in New Hampshire, and he certainly has upside potential there. But curiously, he hasn't leaped to the front of the pack in the South, including his birthplace of South Carolina. Why? In part, because some Southerners see him as a chameleon-like ex-trial lawyer who bears an unnerving resemblance to a fellow they called Slick Willie.

Woe Is Us? Should Democrats be concerned about the failure of Iowa to winnow the field and get the nominating season over with in short order? Nope. Just the opposite. The party should be elated that in a year in which Bush is seen a shoo-in for reelection by two-thirds of voters, the party faithful are so riled about the President's conservative regime that they'll flood polling places during the primaries -- and may come out in even bigger numbers come November.

Bush and his political guru, Karl Rove, may be enjoying the Dems' nominating spectacle right now. The question is: Will they still be chuckling next fall?

Walczak is BusinessWeek's Washington bureau chief

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