The morning of the Iowa caucus, The New York Times actually did something poetic: on the front page were photographs of five of the leading presidential candidates. Each picture spoke a thousand words:
Mike Huckabee, smiling but eyes cast downward, clutching a bottle of water.
John Edwards, standing in near-darkness, with a bit of light around him, sporting a Mona Lisa smile.
Barack Obama, in full stride, heading confidently up the steps to a waiting stage.
Mitt Romney, aboard his campaign plane, hands clasped together, big laugh emanating from him.
And Hillary Clinton, with Bill stand-in Chelsea by her side, looking pleadingly into the crowd as she reached — reached! — for a supporter’s hand.
And so it was.
By the time the caucus was over, Clinton, Edwards, and Romney all shared the same lament:
“I spent two years campaigning in Iowa, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”
By the end of Tuesday night, there will be an entirely new dynamic, particularly since some who sunk in Iowa are sinking further, some who rose in Iowa are rising further, and some who didn’t register in Iowa are poised to strike.
Obama is now the speeding locomotive that cannot be stopped, even by the once-mighty Clinton War Machine. His rhetoric is as wispy and insubstantial as cotton candy, and it doesn’t matter. His Iowa victory is real, and sustainable. By defeating Edwards and Clinton by 9 points, he has made it safe for voters in New Hampshire, South Carolina and beyond to choose him. People needed to see that viability before they would invest their votes in him. They’ve now seen it. Oprah’s influence on this score should not be discounted; she made it safe for black voters to support Obama — and for women NOT to vote for Hillary. His campaign is now the giant snowball leading the avalanche.
Getting buried by this unstoppable force of nature is Queen Bee. She enrobed herself in invincibility, and that has now been shattered twice: once on that debate stage in Philadelphia several weeks ago, when she muffed the question about driver’s licenses for illegals, and again in the Iowa caucus. She is now perceived as a loser. It’s not impossible for her to recover: the Clinton Politburo has been known to pull rabbits out of hats before. But even they cannot uncrack the egg.
Edwards was the only Democrat who rested before the Saturday night debate, and it showed. He cleverly turned the tables and used Clintonian Triangulation against the woman who once benefited so mightily from it. He aligned himself with Obama as the best agents for change, making her the unwanted stepsister. She looked like she had just been told by two roommates that she needed to find another place to live.
Edwards made one really stupid mistake: when he was asked how he would respond as president if terrorists detonated a nuclear weapon in an American city, Edwards said he’d retaliate but do it in a way that is “calm.” Calm?! In the face of a nuke going off in New York or Chicago or LA? Calm? In the face of millions dead and millions more irradiated? Calm? In the face of jihad? Dumb, and irresponsible.
Edwards can’t win in New Hampshire or beyond, but he can make Clinton’s life miserable — and therefore help Obama.
Huckabee’s victory in the Iowa caucus has many Republicans across the country asking, “What the Huck?” What made his win so stunning is that he did it — literally — on a wing and a prayer. But he will not be able to replicate that result in New Hampshire, or anywhere else (except — maybe — South Carolina). He will soon become a historical footnote, alongside Tom Harkin and Paul Tsongas.
Incoming! Here comes John McCain, stealth candidate. New Hampshire is familiar, friendly turf for him. His mudfight with Romney has redounded to his benefit, as that state’s fiercely independent voters choose the grizzled military hero over the model of Brylcreemed perfection. McCain’s debate zingers this weekend would have backfired if delivered by anyone else. But folks already know he’s got a sharp tongue, and his sometimes acid style helps him with the state’s 44 percent of Independents, who are weighing the totally incoherent choice of McCain or Obama.
Then there’s Rudy Giuliani. During the debates, he got in a few solid, passionate points about fighting Islamic terror and poverty, but his own strategy has marginalized him. He’s the Chris Dodd of this race right now. He’s spending all of his time on the defensive. He’s also lost control, and for a guy running on a past of control-freakdom (in a good way!), this is also not good. He may be able to recover if, by the end of January, voters are already sick of McCain and Romney and looking for yet another “fresh face.”
The irony is that the much laughed-at Giuliani strategy of waiting for February 5 to rack up the big wins will also become Clinton’s strategy as she loses these early contests. It’s quite a development: the once national frontrunners are now counting on America’s Attention Deficit Disorder to propel them.
None of the candidates gravely damaged themselves this weekend, but voters’ feelings toward the candidates are beginning to harden. Clinton can try to reinvent herself (again) with new posters that say “Ready!” instead of “Change!” And Romney can pour more money in. And Edwards can bite like a junkyard dog. And Fred Thompson can change his pace from lethargic to lackadaisical. And none of it will matter.
What is going on out there is so much bigger than any of the candidates: this election is less an intellectual choice than an emotional one. The candidates who get it — who are riding the snowball — are the ones prospering. The ones who don’t even feel the rumble of the avalanche are being smothered.