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Two Contests, Worlds Apart

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The contrast between the two presidential nomination contests continues to be startling. On the Democratic side, the divide is almost theological: Some party members believe that the nomination of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is virtually inevitable; others believe that resistance to her is too strong for her to prevail. The divisions on the Republican side are much more complex and interesting.

The GOP debate is over whether Iowa and New Hampshire will determine the nominee. If the first two state contests are what matters most, then former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has a huge advantage. But if 2008 turns out to be a historical anomaly in which former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has the strength and star power to rebound from a few early losses, the outcome could be very different.

Then there is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has been the Rodney Dangerfield of this race, with no money, few endorsements, and little organization. Yet, by many accounts, he is the most naturally talented contender. Is he really catching on, as he appears to be doing in Iowa? Wow, what a race!

The disparity in the points of view about Clinton's prospects was apparent in the aftermath of the Iowa Democratic Jefferson-Jackson Dinner last weekend. From my seat in the grandstand -- a better vantage point than the floor -- Sens. Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd, as well as Gov. Bill Richardson, gave solid, workmanlike performances but probably didn't significantly improve their standing.

Former Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama did excellent jobs, but Clinton was the most impressive. After a couple of tough weeks, she needed a big performance, and delivered one. A veteran political reporter who has covered at least six presidential elections sat next to me and had the same impression. A large number of the Obama supporters at the event looked too young to get served at a bar, even if the drinking age were 18. Nevertheless, the consensus of reporters there, at least from the coverage I have read, suggests that Obama was the winner. Although Obama's speech was certainly well delivered and far better than his flat appearance before the Iowa Farmers Union that morning, was it really the best?

Clearly, Clinton's momentum was halted by the October 30 MSNBC debate in Philadelphia. She had seemed on the verge of closing the sale, to the extent that it can be closed two months out. But whether because of a substandard performance or a desire in the news media to keep the contest alive, this fight is still very much undecided.

An analysis by University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Franklin on Pollster.com of three sets of pre- and post-debate polls in New Hampshire shows that Clinton dropped an average of 6 points in the state, Obama picked up 5 points, and Edwards edged up 2. Franklin's colleague on Pollster.com, former Democratic pollster Mark Blumenthal, added his own analysis showing that Clinton seemed to drop most among college-educated voters, who tend to follow campaign coverage most closely. How much damage the Philadelphia debate did to Clinton and how long it will last is anybody's guess. But either her performance or the coverage of it seems to have hurt her.

Meanwhile, top Giuliani campaign strategists held a conference call to make their case that he will be sufficiently strong in the 23 primaries and caucuses set for February 5 to win the nomination. They insisted that he could build a triple-digit delegate lead that day in states that are "momentum-proof."

He could be strong enough in those states to be resistant to the bounce that Romney might get, should he win both Iowa and New Hampshire. The strategists argued that Giuliani's strength in the January 29 Florida primary, coupled with his lead in four winner-take-all February 5 states: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Delaware, means that he is more than capable of taking the delegate lead on that pivotal day.

Even though no one has managed to lose both Iowa and New Hampshire and go on to win the GOP nomination, could Giuliani have the political and financial strength to take that double licking and keep on ticking? Would the resistance to Romney give the former mayor the opening to do that? This really is a fascinating race.

 
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