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Don’t Believe the Hype: Despite New Calendar, It’s Still All About Iowa

While more than a few states have scrambled to move up in the presidential primary calendar from May or June to February or March, it is becoming clear that Iowa or New Hampshire remain the crucial tests in selecting the next Democratic nominee for president. [IMGCAP(1)]

Sure, South Carolina, Arizona and Michigan may ultimately crown the Democratic nominee, and even Virginia and Wisconsin, states that moved up in an effort to have more influence, could come into play. But Iowa’s importance remains unmatched to Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Everyone knows (and even Gephardt’s supporters agree) that if the Missouri Congressman loses in Iowa, he’s toast. If he can’t repeat his 1988 Iowa caucuses victory in 2004, it’s hard to see where he can win. So let’s assume for the sake of argument that Gephardt finishes first at the caucuses by enough to confirm his strength in both the state and the overall race.

Second place in Iowa is where the real battle is, especially if the outcome includes an upset.

Kerry is generally assumed to be Gephardt’s greatest threat, and the Massachusetts Senator has put together an impressive organization in the state. But Dean has a chance to turn the Democratic contest on its head by finishing second in Iowa, and an upbeat Dean scenario doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to me.

If Dean pulls a surprise and finishes ahead of Kerry, the Democratic race would suddenly be transformed. The Vermont doctor would become the giant-killer and suck up all of the oxygen in the Democratic contest. That’s what happened in 1984, when then-Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) became the focus of a media frenzy following his second-place showing (with only a little more than 16 percent) in Iowa.

Most of the post-Iowa media coverage would focus on Dean, portraying him as the pied piper of the traditional wing of the Democratic Party, and as a straight-talker who came from nowhere to beat better-funded establishment candidates. His victory would be a great media story, and nobody else in the contest, with the possible exception of Gephardt, would receive much positive ink.

That outcome would completely change the dynamic in New Hampshire, giving the former governor enough momentum to win the first primary in the nation.

Kerry’s campaign, by contrast, would be gasping for air after a third-place finish in the Hawkeye State.

The day after the caucuses, the Massachusetts Senator would find himself peppered with process questions by the media (“Why did Dean beat you? What went wrong? How can you win? What are you going to do differently? Was your strategy wrong? Are you getting out of the race?”).

He would find it impossible to talk about his issue positions, his personal experiences and accomplishments, and his previously assumed electability, just the sort of subjects that he’d need to discuss to sell himself to Granite State voters.

Could Kerry right his ship in the week between the nation’s first caucus and first primary? Yes, it’s certainly possible. He’d still have a considerable financial advantage in New Hampshire, and primaries produce different electorates than do caucuses. But suddenly he’d find himself just another hopeful, not the co-favorite in the race.

If that happens, the Democrats would find themselves in an unexpected situation. Gephardt and Dean would be leading the pack, and moderates and DLC types would have to make a choice: Do they embrace Gephardt as the preferable alternative, or do they choose either Kerry or Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) as the only other Democrat with a chance for the nomination?

Dean probably still doesn’t win the Democratic nomination even with this most favorable scenario. But whatever his shortcomings, he ought not be dismissed. The calendar, at least, gives him an unusual opportunity to be a factor in the race.

Of course, there is another scenario, one which is widely regarded as more likely. If Kerry places a strong second in Iowa and beats Dean comfortably in the caucuses, the former Vermont governor’s bubble would burst.

Gephardt and Kerry would likely be anointed by the media as the two major contenders for the nomination, making it difficult to imagine the former governor besting Kerry in the Granite State. And that would probably relegate Dean to the role of protest candidate, not contender.

For all the talk by some Democrats of eclipsing the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire, those early contests remain as powerful as ever. Edwards may hope he can show his stuff in South Carolina, and Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) may figure he can jump-start his effort in Arizona. But weak showings by both men in the earliest contests may sink them before Feb. 3.

This cycle, you might want to keep your eye on the fight for second place in Iowa. It could have more of an effect on New Hampshire than the fight for first place.


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