Salena Zito

For politicians, momentum is a fickle mistress. Elusive, it shifts at the slightest provocation.

George H.W. Bush learned that in 1980s Iowa caucuses. Eking out a slim 31.5 percent to 29.4 percent victory over Ronald Reagan, the elder Bush called his momentum the "big mo." Weeks later the "big mo" fell into Reagan’s arms.

Two things can stop momentum dead in its tracks -- organization or a defining moment. Reagan used both to his advantage to clothesline H.W. Bush's self-proclaimed Iowa momentum in 1980. By the time Reagan uttered "I am paying for this microphone" at the New Hampshire debate, he effectively ended Bush’s candidacy.

Since Jimmy Carter, the traditional path to each political party’s nomination has begun with wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. Thanks to the front-loading of numerous primaries on Feb. 5, 2008 -- "Super Duper Tuesday" -- experts in both political academia and political practice are uncertain as to when and where ‘big mo’ will begin this time.

"Ignore past history in judging the significance of a win in Iowa, or a win in Iowa and New Hampshire, because of the dog pile of primaries on Feb. 5," said one high-level operative working for a Democrat presidential candidate.

"My guess is that for both parties, the candidate who is leading in national polls should win on Feb. 5 if the margin of the national polls is considerable."

Figure on any number over 18 points as being "considerable."

Wait a minute, says Matt Lebo, a political science professor at Stony Brook (N.Y.) University: "The ability to stand up as the winner of the first couple of contests is still huge. These candidates want to look presidential (and) that is hard to do when you just came in third place.

"Super Duper Tuesday may have a lot of effects, but it still shouldn't take away the incredible importance of the first two or three states," he says.

GOP strategist Dan Schnur agrees that "winning breeds winning." Schnur teaches political science at the University of California, Berkeley. "It used to be when you won Iowa and/or Iowa and New Hampshire, you got headlines. When you get headlines, you get crowds. And when you get crowds, you get money," he says. "That still is the case."

One Democrat strategist who is not attached to any presidential candidate believes that " ‘big mo’ is the same as it always is -- Iowa and New Hampshire are still rocket fuel. The difference for the Republicans is the displeasure in the field."

Citing disenchantment with the conservative bona fides of the first-tier candidates, he went on to say that "the candidates for the Republicans that could really parlay a boost in those early primary states would be (Mike) Huckabee or Fred Thompson."

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.