Fighting for Iowa

A month before the voting starts things have taken a turn for the worse for Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney in Iowa — which their supporters and many pundits deems critical to their chances of victory. Neither is ignoring their peril but it remains to be seen whether the tactics each are employing are going to help or make matters worse.

For Clinton the air of invincibility has dissipated. Following her disastrous “driver’s license for illegal aliens” debate performance and the whining that followed, her astronomical lead in national polls has shrunk and she faces immediate peril in Iowa where the poll average shows her in a tie with Barack Obama, only slightly ahead of John Edwards. Never one to stand idly by when her objectives were imperiled she has gone negative, some say ballistic, in an effort to crush her opponents and prevent a huge upset on January 3. She has directly attacked Obama on social security, Iran and healthcare — and even dug up a kindergarten essay (hey, the guy must have been smart to be writing essays in kindergarten) showing he really did have a life long desire to be president.

This has perplexed and worried her MSM allies. Time Magazine, one of many outlets which tried to steer her off this course, intoned: “At a time when two new Iowa polls show Obama actually pulling into the lead and Clinton losing support among women, some political observers are wondering if Clinton will come to regret her newly assertive strategy. She already has the highest negative ratings in the race, and the shift in tactics comes only a month before the Iowa caucus — where voters are famous for their distaste of negative campaigning. Launching the attacks herself, rather than with via surrogates, only makes the move even riskier.”

The danger for Clinton is twofold. First, she will revive and highlight Obama’s theme that she is too indecisive to attract independent voters needed to win the general election and too off putting to govern effectively. Until now Clinton’s latest incarnation of a controlled and polished veteran seemed at odds with Obama’s warnings that she would prove poison at the ballot box. But since she has lived up to her reputation, Obama can now simply smile and say “there she goes again.” In an interview with the Des Moines Register this week he said: “”I believe that I can much more effectively attract new voters, and Republicans that have been disillusioned with the other side, and independents who are trying to find a political home, and potentially create a working majority for change. Now what we know is that that will not happen with Senator Clinton. That’s guaranteed.”

Second, her enhanced negativity allows Edwards to turn down his rhetoric and notch and play the genial rather than the angry populist. In the Las Vegas debate he was openly booed and accused of “playing from the Republican handbook” for going after Clinton. Now he can, as he did in the National Public Radio debate, speak in more measured tones which appeal to the famously “nice” Iowa electorate.

Did Clinton have a choice? If she had confidence in her message of experience and had not caved into the calls of the netroot extremists on Iraq she might be calmly explaining that she alone offered responsible leadership in dangerous times. But instead she chose to vote against a resolution condemning the infamous “Petraeus/Betray Us” ad.

Had she advanced a specific tax policy or showed her hand on social security she could have declared herself the bold visionary and stolen the populist mantle from Edwards. But lacking those options, she is left with a most basic Clinton tactic: destroy the opposition. Whether Obama is skillful enough to parry her thrusts and convince Iowans that the Democrats would be better served by a new style of politics remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Romney on his way to an impressive victory in Iowa was ambushed by Mike Huckabee. Recent polls either show Huckabee slightly ahead or the two in a statistical dead heat. Having rallied social conservatives to his cause Huckabee has provided the alternative to Romney that some had hoped Thompson would be. If Romney were to lose in Iowa his early state strategy to build momentum for the rest of the race would be significantly damaged. Headlines trumpeting the embarrassment of spending more than $7M to lose to an underfunded and understaffed opponent would blanket the news heading into New Hampshire’s January 8 primary.

His response was two-fold: The Speech and launching attacks on Huckabee’s immigration and fiscal record.

After days of build up and speculation The Speech sounded a rather standard plea for religious tolerance and a familiar call for welcoming religious faith — without regard to any particular creed — into the public square and political life of the country. He avoided any explanation of Mormon faith other than to assure voter he believed “Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.”

The initial reviews were mixed — some praising it and others finding it had failed to live up to its huge expectations. Perhaps the most telling line, unintentionally so was this: “Americans do not respect believers of convenience. Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world.” The jury is out as to whether that very concern about Romney — his credibility quotient — rather than his particular faith, is at the nub of the problem.

As for his attacks on Huckabee’s immigration policy and record of taxes hikes and spending as Arkansas governor, Romney has as yet failed to convince voters that Huckabee’s views are out of step with the Iowa electorate. With the revelation that Romney’s illegal alien gardening crew never left his yard, the immigration attacks may be muted. On fiscal issues, Romney enjoys help from Club for Growth which has sent out volley after volley of emails depicting Huckabee as a liberal tax and spender. However, Huckabee’s “Main Street vs. Wall Street” rhetoric, while an anathema to fiscal conservatives and many GOP primary voters nationally, may nevertheless play well in Iowa.

Romney has caught one break however: the controversy over Huckabee’s role in releasing convicted rapist Wayne Dumond has surfaced again, raising the specter of another “Willie Horton” case that may bring Huckabee’s poll numbers down to earth.

So in the next month we will know whether Clinton’s nuclear attack was successful and whether Romney’s faith based gamble sprinkled with negative ads was able to avoid an upset. If not, there will be plenty of time for second guessing as Clinton and Romney opponents celebrate their new lease on life.