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Analysis Was it really a good idea to give Edwards an opening?

December 19, 2007Desperate to stave off a surging Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton’s strategists a couple of weeks ago took a calculated risk in the Iowa caucus campaign, focusing their fire on the senator from Illinois while giving the former senator from North Carolina a pass. Better for Edwards to win Iowa, they reasoned, than for Obama to have the momentum heading into the New Hampshire primary the following week.

The good news, and perhaps the bad news, for Clinton is that the strategy appears to be working.

Edwards does well in the latest InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion poll, leading the field among likely caucus-goers, and in a virtual tie with Obama among those highly likely to show up. At the most advantageous moment, Newsweek’s out with a cover story on Edwards, headlined, “The Sleeper.”

But especially when you consider what might happen beyond New Hampshire, these poll numbers don’t look good for Clinton. She comes in third when the screen is tightened to those highly likely to go to the caucuses, and when voters who chose candidates other than the top three were asked who was their second choice, she comes in last.

A close second-place finish in Iowa wouldn’t knock Obama so far off-stride in New Hampshire that Clinton won’t face a tough fight with him there. An Edwards victory, on the other hand, presents the former frontrunner with a dangerous new challenge.

By itself, an Edwards win in the Jan. 19 caucuses in Nevada, where he has union support, wouldn’t mean that much. A win in Nevada after a win in Iowa would mean much more.

A win in Iowa would also make the Jan. 26 South Carolina primary a truly three-way race again. Edwards won an impressive victory in the 2004 South Carolina primary, but he has moved too far to the left and spent too much time elsewhere to repeat his performance there next month unless he picks up momentum.

With momentum for Edwards, South Carolina could become another story.

Edwards has been the hardest working and most tenacious of the Democratic candidates, and his Iowa field operation has the same reputation. Much of the movement in Iowa would likely be happening no matter what strategy the Clinton campaign employed. And if the pattern of second-choice voters extends beyond Iowa, he might be in the best position to win over the supporters of the Democrats who are likely to drop out of this expensive race if they don’t pull a stunner in the first two or three contests.

How much ground Edwards can still gain in big states like Michigan, Florida and California and how he’d hold up if the race became an Edwards-Obama battle are good questions, but probably premature. Edwards made his own strategic calculation very early on in the presidential race to stake a lot on Iowa. If he succeeds that a lot could come of it, and if he doesn’t it becomes progressively harder to get in front anywhere else.

Edwards’ performance at the Des Moines Register debate last week was an accurate reflection of the appeal he has made in that state. He was more restrained in his criticism of the other Democrats, but continued to focus on the corrupting power of corporate interests.

One South Carolina Republican, after watching a recent speech, compared him to Huey Long. That’s not the kind of Democrat Republicans expected to face next year. But then none of the Democrats expected Mike Huckabee.



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