Iowa Winners and Losers

The voters of Iowa have had their say and the 2008 presidential election campaign is now officially underway. While the Iowa dust (or snow) is just beginning to settle, it’s already possible to pick out winners and losers.

WINNERS

Barack Obama: He not only won, he won big. If he had lost in Iowa, the Clinton inevitability train might have been unstoppable. But now he has vaulted into possible frontrunner status. The race is far from over, but Obama has shown that his upbeat message of change and opportunity resonates with voters. Two big questions remain: What will happen when scrutiny moves beyond his positive generalities to his very liberal record? And can he survive the coming attacks from the Clinton machine?

John McCain: He finished in a rough tie for third despite putting in little effort in Iowa (and opposing ethanol subsidies). More important, Mitt Romney took a big hit. McCain was already surging in New Hampshire. With Romney wounded and Huckabee having little New Hampshire traction, a win is now a very realistic possibility. The media would love a McCain comeback story. But where doers he go next?

Mike Huckabee: A win is a win is a win. But Huckabee built his win almost entirely on a turnout by evangelical Christians who ignored his big-government positions. It’s hard to see how he can compete in anti-tax New Hampshire or socially moderate states like California that vote on Super Tuesday. Remember Pat Robertson surprised everyone by finishing second in the Iowa Caucuses in 1988.

LOSERS

Mitt Romney: He built his entire strategy on winning early in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan. Now, despite spending $7 million in Iowa, that strategy is in tatters. He lost in Iowa and is trailing in New Hampshire polls. If he loses next Tuesday, it becomes very hard to see how he comes back. Perhaps money and perfect hair doesn’t overcome a lack of core political beliefs after all.

John Edwards: He had to win in Iowa to be viable. He had campaigned there virtually nonstop for four years. After all that time and effort, second place just isn’t good enough. Obama is now the anti-Hillary candidate. Edwards appears ready to limp on, at least until South Carolina, but if he does it will be more as spoiler than as potential nominee.

Hillary Clinton: Third place? For the inevitable, unstoppable candidate? For a campaign whose entire rationale was built on the idea that she was going to win, she now looks suspiciously like…well…a loser. Still, she has the money, organization, and determination to fight back. There is no more ruthless politician in America. Obama had better be ready.

Fred Thompson: The whole idea of his campaign was that he would unite the party and give all stripes of conservatives someone to rally around. A distant third place tie doesn’t suggest much of a rally. And, he is running even worse in New Hampshire polls. It’s hard to see why he will stay in a race he never really seemed to want to be in.

IT COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE

Ron Paul: His supporters were hoping that Paul’s fundraising prowess, internet popularity, and the zealousness of his followers would translate into a third place finish. Instead, he finished a disappointing fifth. Still, 10 percent of the vote is not bad for a previously unknown congressman from Texas with minimal media exposure. His limited government message clearly touched a chord and has inspired a new generation of libertarian activists. It’s hard to see where he goes after New Hampshire, but he can take satisfaction in what he had already accomplished.

Bill Richardson: He kept his vice presidential hopes alive with a respectable showing. Reports suggest that he actually received some 10 percent of the first round vote, although Iowa’s complicated system ended up giving him only about 2 percent of the regional delegates.

Rudy Giuliani: His Iowa showing was dismal, he trails in New Hampshire, and he has lost his lead in national polls. But the Republican race is now wide open. With no one likely to win all the early primaries, it may be that Giuliani’s strategy of playing rope-a-dope until Florida and the Super Tuesday primaries may be viable after all.