LOS ANGELES – “Fluid” is the word of the day.
That’s how one of my savviest friends described the situation on the Democratic side with the opening bell little more than six weeks away. No locks. No sure things. Fluid.
The conventional wisdom is that Iowa is the four-letter word for Demcrats. But that’s only partly true. Iowa picks losers. New Hampshire picks winners. Iowa winnows down the candidates. Hillary can lose Iowa and be just fine, if she turns around -- almost literally, in just five days -- and wins New Hampshire. But if she loses them both, we’re in for a marathon.
Iowa is, right now, up for grabs. Could Obama win? He could. Could Hillary win? She could. Could Edwards win? Also possible. Hillary has yet to seal the deal. Obama has yet to translate the media’s sense of momentum into real movement on the ground. Edwards is still in there, kicking, with more strength, particularly in rural areas, than Washington-based insiders are likely to acknowledge.
And then there’s the Huckabee of it all. The question in Iowa is always which side gets the most attention. A Huckabee win is good for the Democratic second and third place finishers in Iowa because it limits the attention that the Democratic winner gets, and raises questions as to what winning Iowa really means.
If the headline the next day is “Who’s Huckabee?” it’s not “What Happened to Hillary?” There’s only so much space, air time, and attention to go around. If Iowa Republicans cast their vote for someone who no one thinks could go the distance, how much credit do Iowa Democrats get for their choice?
In 1988, Dick Gephardt won Iowa, and got almost nothing from it, in part because of the upset on the Republican side, where George Bush finished third behind Bob Dole and Pat Robertson. Pat Robertson? He got so much ink that it was only a week later that the two bronze medalists from Iowa finished first in New Hampshire.
In Iowa, most of the talk is domestic. The war matters, but it’s the economy and the bread and butter issues that are commanding the most attention. Not so, from what I hear, in New Hampshire. There, the top three issues are the war, the war, and the war.
If you want to know what’s about to happen in politics, you can always tell by paying attention to the smartest guy in the game. Bill Clinton, I mean. His comments about where his own opposition to the war is may be nitpicked to death by the factcheckers, but no one should doubt the acumen that lies behind them. Neither Obama nor Edwards have yet to succeed in drawing clear lines between themselves and Hillary when it comes to how they would handle the war as president, as opposed to who was against it first, but that’s where the danger, or opportunity, lies.
In the real world, there may well be reason to believe that a much scaled-down but continued U.S. presence in Iraq could be useful in preventing the possible bloodletting that an immediate and total withdrawal might unleash. Certainly, the experience of the Clinton administration in Yugoslavia suggests that there are occasions where this country can play an invaluable role in preventing the sort of genocide that preceded our involvement there, and that unrestrained ethnic rivalries can produce.
But that’s a real world position, not a political stance in an anti-war Democratic primary, which is what New Hampshire is likely to be. In the real world, it may be that you can be too far left on the war, but in the political calculus that is New Hampshire, it’s not clear that such real world rules apply. New Hampshire voters, especially some of the so-called “independent” voters who could go any way, are overwhelmingly anti-war voters.
Who will they vote for? Fluid is the word. Which is another way of saying, who knows? At this point, don’t believe anyone who tells you that they do.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.