Rich Galen
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From Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

The news hit the political world with the force of a category V hurricane pushing a world-class tsunami: The CBS/New York Times poll to be released at 6:30 last night would show a virtual three-way tie between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards in Iowa.

Clinton - 25

Edwards - 23

Obama - 22

According to the later reporting, the margin of error in this poll was plus or minus four percentage points meaning Obama might be leading and Clinton might be in third.

The Iowa caucuses will be held on January 3, 2008. These are precinct caucuses. That is to say, you go to the elementary school gym, or the fire station in your precinct and you vote for the person you think would be the best nominee for your party.

You do this in the dead of night in the dead of winter when you could otherwise be hanging out at your precinct bar discussing the potential outcomes of the first weekend of the NFL playoff games.

Everyone knows the Howard Dean story from the 2004 Iowa caucuses. Leading in the polls. Leading in fundraising. Leading in media attention. Dean got the endorsement of former Vice President (and future Nobel Laureate) Al Gore in mid-December.

On January 19, Dean came in a distant third with 18% of the caucus vote behind winner John Kerry (38%) and John Edwards (32%). Dick Gephardt, who finished fourth, dropped out of the race.

This was CNN's take:

The finish would have shocked pundits less than a week ago, when Dean, former governor of Vermont, was leading the polls, just ahead of Gephardt, a congressman from neighboring Missouri.

This, remember, is not mid-January nor mid-December. It is mid-November.

Nevertheless, the notion of Hillary being tied with her two principal opponents this far out cannot be spun as good news especially on the heels of an uncharacteristically bad couple of weeks in Hillary-land.

The problems started with the most recent debate in which Clinton was for, against, for and then against giving drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants in New York.

That led to very grave chin-scratching articles about whether her inability to clearly articulate an answer on almost any question - from what to do about Social Security to whether it is day or night - would cost her support.

That was followed, just a few days ago, with a story that the Clinton campaign had gotten caught planting questions in the audience of "town-hall" type appearances which her opponents jumped on with every available foot.

Prior to this was the ugly story of a west-coast crook who had bundled some $800,000 worth of donations for the Clinton campaign only to have it come to light he had been on the lam from a felony rap and the campaign had to give back the money.

Nationally, Hillary still holds a lead averaging over 20 percentage points over Barack Obama. But "Nationally" ain't votin' on January third. And if Clinton does not win on January 3rd then the next round - New Hampshire on … who knows … is up for grabs.

Believe it or not, the New Hampshire Secretary of State in whom the power to decide the date of the 2008 Presidential primary has yet to make up his mind, although the heavy betting is on January 8 - five days after the Iowa Caucuses.

The reason this is important is because under New Hampshire law, voters who are registered as Independents can vote in either the GOP or the Democratic primary.

In 2000, a huge percentage of Independents voted in the Republican primary and a huge percentage of those who did voted for John McCain.

A favorite parlor game in Washington, DC these days is trying to sound smart while explaining why Independents will (or will not) gravitate to one primary or the other.

It is safe to assume, however, that if Obama or Edwards (or Obama AND Edwards) upset Clinton in Iowa there will be an avalanche of Independent voters in New Hampshire participating in the Democratic primary - whenever it is held.

As Bette Davis once famously observed: "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night."

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Rich Galen

Rich Galen has been a press secretary to Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich. Rich Galen currently works as a journalist and writes at Mullings.com.