The American race for President is set to begin tomorrow night in Iowa, with fascinating battles in both the Democratic and Republican fields. Lurking in the background, next week's pivotal primary in New Hampshire, which also has a "too close to call" flavor.
On the Democratic side, the Iowa polls show a tight three-way race, although the key Des Moines Register poll gives Obama a slight lead. The polls suggests a massive turnout, including 40% independents which are moving heavily for Obama. The Edwards and Clinton campaigns have both released campaign memos challenging the polls assertions, because the turnout levels would be unprecedented for the usual limited particpation in the caucuses.
The Iowa Caucus is all about organization, especially for the Democrats, where there is plenty of bartering and side deals with less viable candidates. That said, Edwards is very well placed to stage a mini-upset because his campaign relies heavily on seasoned caucus goers, whereas someone like Obama is counting on first-time participants who don't have a history of actually showing up. Edwards has pretty much lived in Iowa for the last four years, and it wouldn't surprise me in the least if he pulls this out. The really intriguing part, Edwards is polling much better in New Hampshire now(averaging 18%) compared with his 2004 run, so if he were to get the traditional Iowa bounce he could actually be a player in the first primary.
If Obama wins Iowa, he is in great shape to win New Hampshire. Some polls already have him neck and neck in New Hampshire, a victory in Iowa would easily give him the needed momentum. The same scenario could play out if Clinton wins, so Iowa would appear to be almost make or break for the Democratic field.
On the Republican side, Huckabee may have peaked too early, as his lead over Romney in Iowa has eroded. There is now only one poll that gives Huckabee the lead, outside of the margin of error, and that narrowing tends to confirm the combination of Huckabee mis-steps and Romney's negative ad assault. Romney is outspending Huckabee 10-1 in Iowa, using his personal fortune to try and buy the win, but all the polls show voters aren't particularly inspired by his rhetoric. If I had to guess, Romney might get the edge, because he has a very formidable organization, whereas Huckabee is relying on church groups and such to get out the vote. However, just like the Democrats, way too close to make a solid prediction.
If there is one candidate hoping for a Huckabee win, clearly it is John McCain. Should Huckabee take out Romney in Iowa, I don't see any scenario where Romney manages to win in New Hampshire. McCain is already surging in New Hampshire, with the polls showing McCain tied or ahead. Huckabee has no chance in New Hampshire, Guiliani has basically abandoned the state, in what amounts to one of the biggest political blunders I can remember, so McCain will easily ride to victory should Romney stutter in Iowa.
The other scenario, a Romney win in Iowa makes for a far more interesting race in New Hampshire. Romney may get a bounce out of Iowa, although I wouldn't expect it to be as big as tradition suggests, primarily because every newspaper feeding New Hampshire is decidedly anti-Romney, very much on side with McCain (McCain has received every single endorsement, while Romney has actually received two anti-endorsements). Still, Romney will have a very good chance should he win in Iowa.
The wildcard, where does McCain finish in Iowa? McCain basically left Iowa to focus on New Hampshire, so the expectations are quite low. However, the polls have shown McCain rising in Iowa, with a respectable third a very real possibility. This fact might explain why McCain is back in Iowa today and tomorrow, hoping that even if Romney wins, he can claim some of the spotlight with a decent finish.
The big unknown heading out of Iowa will be the debates scheduled for this weekend in New Hampshire. How the candidates perform in these debates might be the determining factor for both the Republicans and Democrats. Whatever happens, one thing is for sure, the next few days are setting up to be a political junkies wet dream :)