Salena Zito

Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama stand on political precipices in Iowa.

With the wind of surging campaigns at their backs and New Hampshire on the other side of their current Iowa momentums, they have nowhere to go but forward, to see where potential Iowa caucus wins might take them.

Both are men in forward motion in their respective parties. With 40-odd days left until the first precinct count in Iowa, they are beating expectations and inevitability by pulling ahead in polls.

But what does it all mean and how did they get here?

Start with Obama. His rise to the top of the Democrats’ heap can be attributed to three things: money, a top-notch organization and that key message of change that is so appealing to Democrats. From the moment he stepped into Iowa, he has siphoned supporters from John Edwards, the party’s original change-agent, and never looked back.

If Obama beats Edwards and Hillary Clinton in Iowa, then Edwards is out and Clinton is on the ropes. Despite her massive lead in national polling, an Obama win makes her more vulnerable than conventional wisdom dictates. Deep concern still exists in the Democrats’ psyche about Clinton’s ability to win nationally and her polarizing effect on voters.

Winning Iowa does not mean Obama clinches the Democrats’ ticket; Clinton would survive such a loss -- no one should ever bet against her. Yet Obama has one heck of a chance to be the nominee if he is Iowa’s choice in January.

Right now, he needs a better game plan in New Hampshire, where he has failed to soak up Clinton’s eroding support. While she dropped 7 percentage points in the latest University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll, the candidate who gained wasn’t Obama. It was New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

For Obama to have a sustainable campaign out of Iowa, he must pick away at Clinton’s vulnerabilities and supporters. He also must reach out to Richardson, Edwards and Chris Dodd supporters and convince them he can be a winner for the party, not only on primary night but in the general election.

From left field to right field and the Iowa insurgency of Mike Huckabee: He has climbed to the near top of the GOP pile with considerably fewer resources than his Democrat counterpart; his money is tight and so is his organization. He has relied on shoe leather, likability and old-fashioned retail politics.

Conservative Christians make up 40 percent to 50 percent of the GOP turnout in Iowa and that explains a lot. He’s a Southern Baptist preacher, so folksy and plain-speaking that he has become the new John McCain of old. Tack on Republicans’ queasiness with their field of candidates; their unsettled psyche has given an alternative like Huckabee a second glance.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.