washingtonpost.com's Politics Blog
The Line: For Obama, It Takes a Movement
For months, we've written that the only way for Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) -- or any other Democrat for that matter -- to defeat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) is to make the vote about more than just politics.
A standard political race -- governed by the same rules and regulations that typify these contests -- will almost certainly result in Clinton as the nominee. Her reach within the party establishment is just too broad for anyone to beat her in a traditional nominating contest.
But in a non-traditional fight, all bets are off. And, more and more, Obama seems set on turning his candidacy -- and the vote in the Iowa caucuses -- into a movement, insisting that the choice is crucial for the future direction of the country.
This idea is illustrated in Obama's latest ad, which began running in Iowa earlier this week:
That is one powerful spot, and it's all about casting his campaign as something much, much more than politics as usual. "We are in a defining moment in our history," he says in footage taken from his speech at the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner last month. "America, our moment is now."
The contrast between Obama's "movement" and Clinton's traditional campaign operation is implicit in the ad (the New York senator is not mentioned), but it is very real. Clinton, by the very nature of her background and candidacy, is not capable of taking advantage of this unique moment in American political history, argues the ad. Only Obama can do it.
Turning his campaign into a movement about something more than politics is the best -- and perhaps only -- path for Obama to win the nomination. He appears to have realized that.
In an attempt to keep pace with ever-changing landscape of the two nomination fights, The Fix is going to a weekly presidential Line between now and when the two parties have effectively picked their 2008 nominees. Because we'll be looking at the presidential candidates every week for the next 8 weeks (or more), we are trimming down the write-up for each candidate to make for a slightly quicker read.
As always, remember the No. 1 ranked candidate is the one who is most likely to wind up as that party's nominee.
To the Line!
1. Rudy Giuliani: The former mayor of New York has hit a rough patch of late, symbolized by the media fallout from (and his campaign's strained explanations of) a Politico story that suggested Hizzoner used official security funds to transport his mistress (now wife, Judith Nathan) when he was still mayor. But take a step back and things look far better. Mike Huckabee's rise in Iowa takes the pressure off of Giuliani to slow Mitt Romney there and opens up the real possibility that Giuliani could win New Hampshire. His campaign won't cop to it, but in figuring out the math it seems like a win in New Hampshire or South Carolina is an absolute must for Giuliani at this point. (Previous ranking: 1)
2. (tie) Mitt Romney: For a man who seemed to have considered every possibility and every angle in this race, we don't think Romney saw Mike Huckabee coming. (He admitted as much in a sitdown with The Fix last week in Iowa.) Huckabee's surge in the Hawkeye State is generally bad news for Romney, as it puts a state where he looked invincible back into play and seriously jeopardizes his chances of running the table in Iowa and New Hampshire. That said, if Huckabee maintains his lead in Iowa for a week or two, Romney could well look like the Comeback Kid (apologies to Bubba) if he winds up winning the caucuses. (Previous ranking: 2)
2. (tie) Mike Huckabee: Timing is everything in politics, and Huckabee is moving at the right time. What remains to be seen is whether Huckabee's momentum can overcome Romney's money in Iowa. Huckabee finished a surprising second at the Ames Straw Poll in August but was well behind the well-financed and organized Romney. Given where Huckabee stands in Iowa polling now, a second-place finish is no longer the moral victory it would have been. Ah, the expectations game! (Previous ranking: 3)
4. John McCain: McCain is basically running a one-state strategy at the moment, putting the vast majority of his time and campaign resources into New Hampshire. Polling shows that to be a sound strategy, as McCain remains a major factor in the Granite State and is positioned to make a major push in the final month of the campaign. But can McCain's support in New Hampshire withstand a fourth or fifth place finish in Iowa? He skipped the state in 2000 and has so far mounted a half-hearted effort there this time around. McCain must hope New Hampshire voters ignore what happens in Iowa and decide to assert their famous independence by backing the candidate they loved in 2000. (Previous ranking: 4)
5. Ron Paul: "Dr. No" makes The Line for the first time. Why? Because Paul's surprising fundraising success means that he will have plenty of money to reach Republican caucusgoers and primary voters with his unique message of getting American troops out of Iraq and drastically limiting the role of government. Paul seems likely to become a home for any disaffected voter unhappy with the top-tier candidates. While we'd be surprised to see him crack 10 percent in Iowa, his messaging is a surprisingly natural fit for a segment of New Hampshire's Republican voters. Can Paul win? No. Can he impact the race? Yes.
1. Hillary Rodham Clinton: The coronation is officially on hold. But be careful about predicting the demise of Clinton II. She is tough as nails and, more so than any other candidate on either side (with the possible exception of McCain), knows how to soldier through adversity. For all the political obituaries being penned about Clinton, every poll we've seen shows Iowa a three-way statistical dead heat. Momentum isn't on Clinton's side at the moment in the state, but her campaign is pulling out the stops to shift the debate from one of personalities to one of accomplishments. If Clinton loses in Iowa, New Hampshire will be her last, best chance to retake the frontrunner mantle. Still, she has more potential paths to the nomination than any of her opponents. (Previous ranking: 1)
2. Barack Obama: We've said our piece about Obama above. During our trip to Iowa last weekend, we saw a different Obama -- savvier politically, more comfortable in his own skin etc. The biggest remaining question for Obama is: Do Iowa voters go right to the edge with him only to change their minds to go with the perceived better general-election candidate (Clinton or John Edwards)? We don't know. (Previous ranking: 2)
3. John Edwards: Count us as skeptical about the talk that Edwards's Iowa support is rapidly eroding. In poll after poll -- including the Post's own poll and the Des Moines Register's gold standard survey -- Edwards is within striking distance. He touched a chord with Iowa voters in 2004, and he has kept a loyal and sizable group with him despite the presence of two rock stars in the Democratic field. Turnout is everything for Edwards in Iowa. In 2004, the campaigns of former Gov. Howard Dean (Vt.) and then-Rep. Dick Gephardt (Mo.) planned for a traditional turnout model (60,000 to 70,000) and were swamped when more than 124,000 people turned out. If the number of voters stays between 120,000 and 140,000, Edwards has a strong chance. If it grows beyond that, he could be in trouble. (Previous ranking: 3)
4. Bill Richardson: There remains a major gap in Iowa and nationally between the Big 3 on the Democratic side and the rest of the field. We move Richardson up a spot this month based on the idea that of the candidates not named Clinton, Edwards or Obama, he will have the most money to spend in the final month. Richardson has really struggled to differentiate himself from the field; his appeal that he is the lone chief executive in the race has fallen flat and his plan to remove all troops from Iraq by the end of the year hasn't done the trick either. Still, polling shows Richardson running a solid fourth in Iowa and New Hampshire; our numbers-based mind can't ignore that. (Previous ranking: 5)
5. Joe Biden: The highlight of the generally news-less National Public Radio debate earlier this week in Iowa was Biden. With foreign policy on the front burner, Biden scolded his rivals for their lack of knowledge and realism while simultaneously showing off his impressive political resume. The best thing going for Biden is Biden. He knows what he believes and connects well with voters and elected officials alike. The problem for Biden is that he hasn't made a major move in the Iowa polls yet -- and time is running out. Still, if an Iowa dark horse does emerge, our money is on the man from Delaware. (Previous ranking: 4)