Six weeks out from the Iowa caucuses, the presidential race looks more uncertain than ever. Only last week did the schedule of contests become certain: The day before Thanksgiving, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner set the state's primary on Jan. 8, and the day before that, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Michigan primary can proceed on Jan. 15. Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani continue to lead the competitions in national polls and in the large states, but on the Democratic side, there is a virtual three-way tie in Iowa, and on the Republican side, Mitt Romney leads in Iowa and New Hampshire. As for the general election, national polls show Democrats generally doing better than Republicans, but recent Rasmussen and Mason-Dixon polls show Hillary Clinton trailing in what was, in 2000 and 2004, the key state of Florida.
The political world was buzzing last week about the ABC News/Washington Post poll showing Barack Obama leading Clinton in Iowa. His lead was not statistically significant, and Iowa polls are problematic because of the difficulty of isolating the small number of caucus goers (only 5 percent of voters participated in the Democratic caucuses in 2004). A Clinton win in Iowa followed by another win in New Hampshire probably would clinch the nomination. But if Barack Obama wins in Iowa and gets a bounce in New Hampshire, it would be a two-way contest at least up through Feb. 5, by which time half the nation will have had a chance to vote. That might be true if John Edwards wins in Iowa, but New Hampshire has never much cottoned to Southern candidates; after a strong second in Iowa in 2004, Edwards finished a poor fourth in New Hampshire.
Democratic voters seem optimistic about winning in November, but they have a difficult judgment to make: About half the voters have favorable and unfavorable feelings toward Hillary Clinton, which means (A) she can win and (B) she can lose. That's not likely to change much because she's been in the national spotlight for 15 years. As general election candidates, Obama and Edwards, far less well-known, have more upside potential, but also, because they're far less tested, more downside potential, as well. If Democrats are concerned about electability, as they were in 2004, they have a tough judgment to make.