35 DAYS TO GO and a new poll in Iowa shows Barack Obama has jumped into the lead with 30 percent; Hillary Clinton is at 26 percent; and John Edwards has 22 percent, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll. Clinton people say the poll is an outlier, but admit that Iowa is her toughest state.
Consider this: Asked who best understands "the problems of people like you," 30 percent of Iowans said Obama, 25 percent said Edwards, and only 20 percent said Clinton.
Change or experience? The poll shows 55 percent of Iowans believe a "new direction and new ideas" are needed, compared with 33 percent who wanted "strength and experience." That's a 12-point shift toward change since July. In perfect triangulation, Clinton says she has the experience to produce change.
Three out of four Iowans say they are just getting by or falling behind financially. They are, as President Bush once said, struggling to "put food on their families."
What's driving change? Consider the country under Cheney-Bush: We're killing and dying in a disastrous war in Iraq, we're hated around the world, gas and oil prices are soaring, home prices are falling, the mortgage mess is chilling the economy, the earth is warming, China is selling us lead-laced toys, Pakistan is in turmoil, and Iran wants nuclear weapons. In such a world, saying you know your way around Washington is like saying you know how to hit yourself in the head with a ball-peen hammer.
Sports cars or sedans? Democrats drool over sports cars but buy practical sedans. Democrats have a history of nominating safe candidates. See Hubert Humphrey over Eugene McCarthy, Jimmy Carter over Mo Udall, Walter Mondale over Gary Hart, Mike Dukakis over Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton over Jerry Brown, Al Gore over Bill Bradley, John Kerry over Howard Dean. This favors Hillary, but white Iowans may want to show their lack of prejudice by standing up in caucuses for an African-American.
Who's your second choice? This is crucial because Iowa's rules say a candidate must get at least 15 percent in a caucus for votes to count; if your pick doesn't make it, you have a viable alternative. The ABC/Post poll showed 34 percent say Obama is their second choice, 28 percent Edwards, 15 percent Clinton. One edge for Edwards: He's done this before, in 2004. Bill Clinton never contested Iowa and its 1,781 precinct meetings.
What happens after Iowa? If Hillary Clinton wins big in Iowa, the race could end right there; if she doesn't, it will go on for a while. Five days later is New Hampshire, a good state for the Clintons. Michigan is next on Jan. 15 and Obama, Edwards, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden have all removed their names from its ballot. Michigan is a rogue state whose date violates national party rules. But the real reason for bailing out is to curry favor with date-obsessed Iowa and New Hampshire.
Hillary remains on the Michigan ballot and can shrewdly say she won't campaign there and decline to say whether the votes count until she sees how many she gets. The GOP is holding its primary that day so votes will be tabulated.
What will stick? Conventional wisdom says attacks don't go over well in Iowa. Clinton and Obama didn't get the memo. Hillary has been belittling Obama's foreign policy experience, while claiming as first lady she made 80 official foreign visits.
Obama says Hillary campaigns from a "poll-driven" defensive crouch, refusing to take clear positions on healthcare or the Iraq war, out of fear that she will be attacked in a general election.
If this bickering continues, Edwards could become the alternative, except. . .
Has Edwards jumped the shark? After running four years ago in unfiltered sunlight, Edwards has grown darkly anti-Hillary. It's a shame because he's been raising important issues - poverty, the stranglehold of money in Washington, truly universal healthcare, and federal policies that have cost working-class people their jobs and homes.
If Edwards has jumped the shark - i.e., gone too far - it may be because one of his top advisers is Joe Trippi of the 2004 Howard Dean campaign. Trippi's arrival coincides with the dawn of a new, angry populist Edwards. Yeeeeee-Haw!
Who you gonna buy? Here's the race in a nutshell: Hillary's got her husband stumping for her in Iowa. Big surprise. Obama will tour the state with Oprah Winfrey, who's never endorsed anyone for office. Tiebreaker: When was the last time average women bought millions of books recommended by Bill Clinton?
Dan Payne is a Boston-based media consultant who has worked for Democratic candidates around the country.