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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority


One of the hot topics surrounding the 2008 presidential campaigns is the effect of the “compressed calendar,” and especially the mega-primary scheduled for February 5, just 22 days after the opening bell in Iowa. There are two diametrically opposed theories about the impact of the new calendar. One holds that the mega-primary is so mega and so early that candidates might well downplay or even skip Iowa and New Hampshire, whose results will quickly be dwarfed, especially in terms of actual delegates won. And the second holds that the Iowa-New Hampshire duopoly will actually be enhanced, since the mega-primary will occur in the immediate wake of the “bounce” from those two states, particularly if one candidate wins both.
For candidates, gambling on the accuracy of the first theory is tempting if you (a) have the money and name ID to campaign heaviily in the February 5 states, and (b) don’t particularly want to spend months on end meeting every single voter in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But so far, no leading Democrats have taken that particular bait. Indeed, when an internal campaign memo making the case for downplaying Iowa got leaked, Hillary Clinton reassured the notoriously touchy residents of that state by immediately stepping up her Iowa scheduling and sending legendary field organizer Teresa Vilmain in to take over her effort there. And even the lower-tier candidates are at this point adhering to the hoary rituals of Iowa and New Hampshire campaign expectations, with occasional stops in Nevada, whose caucus was inserted between IA and NH by the DNC in an effort–of questionable efficacy–to dilute the duopoly.
On the Republican side, however, there odds are rising every day that we will see one if not two major candidates pursuing a February 5 strategy. Last month Rudy Giuliani (followed quickly and opportunistically by the imploding John McCain) announced he would not compete in the August Iowa Republican Party straw poll, a huge deal since more than a third of those who ultimately participate in the caucuses typically attend. Some observers think Rudy shrewdly made the straw poll irrelevant, but since the event is the state party’s major fundraiser for the presidential year, he will definitely pay a price at the caucuses for this act of disrespect. Moreover, though Giuliani’s doing reasonably well in Iowa polls, he hasn’t built much of an organization there, and his staff has been hinting for weeks that it may focus on the February 5 states in the end.
Meanwhile, Fred Thompson’s handlers announced yesterday that he was pushing back his anticipated July campaign launch, perhaps even to September. And even though Fred’s envoys are sniffing around in Iowa, and letting it be known that he might contest the straw poll, a late launch could become the perfect excuse for downplaying or even skipping Iowa and/or New Hampshire, and instead making a first stand in SC–where he’s already runnng first in the polls–as a lead-in to the mega-primary.
If Rudy and Fred both head in this direction, they would be essentially conceding IA and NH to Romney, which would give the Mittster quite a head of steam. But the other thing it could do is to create an opening for a dark horse to emerge in Iowa. One thinks immediately of Mike Huckabee, whose strong debate performances have enhanced his insider reputation as the Lower Tier Candidate To Watch. He’s even beginning to show up with visible support in Iowa polls. The poor guy, however, seems to have inordinate problems raising money, and there are signs in Iowa that he’s being out-organized by the lightly regarded Sam Brownback. The Kansan, who has committed to the August straw poll, has close ties to Iowa’s formidable anti-abortion movement, a credential he is emphasizing by campaigning with the late Terry Schiavo’s brother.
(On a side note: if Brownback does emerge from the pack, he may give Mormon Mitt and Is-He-Still-Catholic Rudy some competition on the religious controversy front. He’s one of those Washington celebrities converted to Catholicism by the Opus Dei organization, so we may find out if the gazillion readers of The Da Vinci Code took the book seriously).
As for the ultimate outcome, nobody knows, but as a historical matter, it’s worth remembering that the last serious candidate who tried to skip both Iowa and New Hampshire was Al Gore in 1988. It didn’t work out too well for him. In 2000, he dutifully competed and won in both the early states, basically croaking Bill Bradley’s challenge before the contest moved on to the rest of the country.
If the above ruminations aren’t complicated enough for you, remember that the calendar could still shift. Florida’s decision to defy both parties’ rules by moving up its primary to January 29 (the same day as SC’s Democratic primary, and four days before its Republican primary) is widely expected to produce a domino effect, with IA, NV, NH and SC all likely to move up at least a week. This will either enhance or dilute the IA/NH effect, depending on which theory turns out to be right about the compressed calendar.

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