Both 2008 front-runners are suddenly in danger in the Iowa caucus, the first electoral test of the presidential races.
Coming on Jan. 3 - only four weeks before the huge set of primaries on Feb. 5 - the Iowa contest will loom large in determining whether Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani face real competition or cakewalks to their nominations.
The New York Times/CBS poll released yesterday indicates real trouble ahead for both in Iowa. On the Democratic side, Clinton leads with 25 percent, followed by John Edwards at 23 percent and Barack Obama at 22 percent. In the GOP contest, Mitt Romney leads with 27 percent followed by Mike Huckabee at 21 percent and Giuliani at 15 percent.
This data contains several key surprises with important strategic implications:
* Hillary's showing raises the real chance that she could lose Iowa.
Months ago, Edwards was ahead, but Clinton had developed an increasing lead - until her recent dismal debate performance sent her fortunes diving.
*Edwards' No. 2 rank in Iowa seems a reward for his toughness in taking her on. Obama, who's been more reticent, has dropped. These results will likely prompt both challengers to ramp up their attacks on Clinton, making the situation worse for her.
* Giuliani's No. 3 rank in the Iowa poll reflects his continuing and inexplicable failure to run TV ads there.
A third-place finish would force him to battle against Romney in New Hampshire (one week after Iowa) and Michigan (10 days after Iowa), where Romney leads - and then in South Carolina (two weeks after Iowa), where Romney and Giuliani are tied for the lead.
* But Romney now faces a serious threat from Huckabee, whose fortunes have risen with each Iowa poll.
Since Huckabee is a true pro-life believer and Romney was pro-choice until right before he entered the presidential race, the ex-Arkansas governor could roll up Romney's right flank.
Romney is ahead because of social-conservative concern about Giuliani's liberalism. But a challenge from Huckabee on the right could easily flake away Romney's support.
So what happens if Hillary and Rudy lose Iowa? Neither will be knocked out. One bad showing can't destroy a front-runner. But '04 drove home the lesson, "New Hampshire is only a county in Iowa": When John Kerry won Iowa, Howard Dean's until-then-huge lead in New Hampshire evaporated - and Kerry won the Granite State easily.
Hillary's lead in New Hampshire is not sufficiently solid to resist an Iowa defeat - a loss in the caucuses would mean a tough battle in Granite State; Edwards and Obama would each have a shot at winning.
Rudy doesn't have a lead in New Hampshire or in any other early primary. His challenge is to stay alive until Jan. 29, then win Florida. That would help him bounce back and fight it out state-by-state on Feb. 5.
But against whom? If Huckabee beats Romney in Iowa, New Hampshire becomes a tight three-way battle that Huckabee, Romney or Giuliani could win. Huckabee would have his Iowa momentum and his abortion purity; Romney would have a regional advantage, having served as Massachusetts governor. Rudy would have a strong base in this northeastern state.
Independents, who can vote in either primary in New Hampshire, seem likely to opt mainly for the Democratic contest (to bolster or destroy Hillary). This would give the GOP true believer, Huckabee, a big edge.
If Romney loses New Hampshire, he probably can't recover, given the expectations. The rest of the GOP contest would feature a battle between Rudy and Huckabee.
There's no safe bets yet.