Democratic rankings: Getting tighter by the day

The Democratic race might be much more tight than it was a month ago -- but it's still easier to handicap than the Republican race. For one, there are two front-runners rather than four, and 'only' three viable candidates. And second, the scenarios under which Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton could clinch the nomination are both very clear and very much possible, a stark contrast to the GOP race where everyone's path to the nomination looks to be a very unlikely proposition.

With that, here is my assessment of the Democratic race, 9 days to Iowa (frankly if I had tried to rank this a week ago I probably would have inverted the first two, but I feel like Clinton has at least stabilized herself now and we can't write her down before Iowa votes at this point):

1. Hillary Clinton

Clinton still is the most likely nominee, but she is barely hanging on at this point. Let's take a moment and realize how much has changed since the Philadelphia debate and the question on illegal immigration which, the media decided, was not a clear enough answer (compare the reaction her answer then got with Obama's as confused answer to the same question 2 weeks later at the Las Vegas debate). Then, she was breaking 50% in national polls, consistently coming on top in Iowa and posting 20+ leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina; now, she is lucky to break 40% in national polls and Obama regularly leads in surveys from the three early states.

Clinton is still the most likely nominee for the simple reason that an Iowa victory would likely clinch the nomination for her, and that is not true of her rivals. But it is also clear that an Iowa loss could make her unravel very quickly -- especially if she comes in Barack Obama. That could ensure she loses New Hampshire and she would then be left in the position of an underdog. But given her organization in all later states and her huge resources, she would certainly not go away and the election would drag on until February 5th, with plenty of opportunities for Clinton to reverse the momentum. Don't get me wrong, she would be very hard pressed to find a way to win if she lost IA and NH, but at least she has some sort of Plan B.

A few more interesting questions about the Clinton campaign heading into January: (1) Will she be able to get any traction from Michigan on January 15th? Only Dodd and her are on the ballot so no one will likely care about her all-but-certain win, but her campaign will do everything it can to spin it as a victory. (2) Different circumstances, different timing, but a similar question can be asked about Florida. Would it be able to save her campaign? Her using FL as a firewall would be very different from Giuliani's doing so -- and possibly more reliable.

2. Barack Obama

Obama has done an admirable job in the past 7 weeks. Most people had written him off when he suddenly woke up, put just enough pressure on Clinton to see her stumble and then made this into a race by surging into ties or victories in all the early-states. Which in itself is a stunning victory given the strength of the Clinton machine. Now, Obama has to close the deal, and he has the talent, the resources and the organization to do so. The question, of course, is whether Obama can survive if Clinton wins Iowa. All indications right now are that with the two tied in NH already, any boost Clinton would get out of IA would ensure she wins in NH, getting Obama pretty much out of the race and leading the media to focus on the Republicans.

Thus, Iowa it is -- and many think Obama is now favored to win the caucuses. Though most polls over the past 10 days show his momentum has halted, he is still in a toss-up and could benefit from a residual of good-will and of second-choice preferences to clinch the caucuses -- and with them, perhaps, the New Hampshire primary.

But it could then become very interesting: For a year, Obama has run as the underdog attacking the establishment. What would a Clinton-Obama contest be if the roles were reversed, if Obama was the one being attacked but trying to remain above the frame? We saw glimpses of such a dynamic in Iowa in December, but no one has really been treating Obama as the favorite. Can his campaign sustain the kind of pressure that would go with an IA-NH dual win, and how aggressive would the Clinton machine get? 

3. John Edwards

As we knew from the beginning, it all comes down to Iowa for Edwards. Obama just needs to stop Clinton there, but Edwards needs to win the caucuses or he is out. He has been campaigning in Iowa for 3 years now and he has a very solid organization, so there is no question he could pull it out. And he is likely to receive some help from the Clinton folks if they see that they are going down anyway, since a loss to Edwards would be much worse than a loss to Obama. But it's a testament to Edwards's remarkable strength that he has been able to hold on steady nationally and is still in the top in Iowa despite the almost exclusive coverage of the Clinton-Obama showdown.

The question though is what Edwards would do with an Iowa victory. Where can he go after that,  given how weak he looks in New Hampshire and South Carolina? Obama and Clinton are both solid candidates with lots of money and committed supporters, so they won't sink like Dean and Gephardt in 2004. An Edwards loss pretty much a sure thing in New Hampshire whatever happens in Iowa, so does the North Carolinian have what it takes for a prolonged dual with candidates who are much better organized in later states? It seems very unlikely, and I have trouble seeing an obvious road to the nomination for Edwards even with an Iowa win -- which is what makes me rank him third even though he is just as likely than the two others of winning the caucuses.

4. Joe Biden and Bill Richardson

Both Biden and Richardson had their days to shine, and the weeks during which they looked set to break through in Iowa. Richardson especially spent most of the summer steadily rising into the double-digits in Iowa and New Hampshire, and looked set for a surprise showing in the caucuses at least. Then Biden started overtaking him and rising. But neither capitalized on their movement and both are stuck with the second-tier candidates -- which in Iowa is bad news as it means no viability in a lot of precincts. 9 days to Iowa, it is more unlikely than ever that a non top-three candidate gets on the podium.

Richardson is an especially interesting candidate given how often he is mentioned as a VP pick, at least for Hillary. He spent much of the fall jumping to Clinton's rescue, whether at debates and on the trail, leading to speculation he was just auditioning for a VP spot. But then he turned negative against Clinton last week, accusing her of flip-flopping on Iraq. Which is more a reflection on Hillary losing her front-runner status than on Richardson's own candidacy.



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