Killing “inevitability in Iowa”

Salena Zito
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Posted: Oct 14, 2007 12:00 AM
Killing “inevitability in Iowa”

How do you stop the Bush-Clinton, Bush-Clinton inevitability?

Well, if you're Barack Obama, you continue to begin each speech in Iowa with the phrase, “If you haven’t signed up for our campaign, please do so now.”

Iowa remains political rocket fuel. It has the power to change the "inevitability" that Hillary Clinton will be the next president. But first you have to win the Hawkeye State.

To win Iowa means understanding it. Many Americans likely don't understand the caucus process. And considering that only 124,000 of the state's nearly 2 million registered voters showed up to caucus in 2004, most Iowans don’t either.

Caucusing is a very public and time-consuming process. Voters don't walk into a private booth and pull a lever or touch a screen. Instead, they gather at meeting places and begin a night of horse trading.

Voters begin by standing with the “preference group” representing the candidate they support. But before any tallying begins, there could be some bartering among preference groups in an attempt to persuade defections.

Finally, the tally: A candidate must hit a 15 percent threshold in each caucus group to be considered viable. If your first choice is not viable, then either you go for your second pick or walk around and shop among whatever viable candidates are left standing -- all under the watchful eye of friends and neighbors.

Polls in Iowa currently have Hillary Clinton holding about a 3 percentage point lead over Barack Obama and a 5 percentage point lead over John Edwards, who's starting to fade.

For Clinton, the key to winning Iowa is for her competition to remain divided. For Obama, the key is organization and getting his mostly younger supporters to show up on caucus night where the average participant is 55 or older.

How does Obama entice his young demographic? By holding caucus “boot camps” -- mock caucuses to introduce them to the experience and make them comfortable with it. Obama's organization also is training precinct captains who can recruit voters from other preference groups while holding the Obama preference group intact.

Obama can win if Edwards' fade continues: Obama, the other "change" candidate, would be the logical pick of Edwards' supporters. And if that happens often enough in a sufficient number of caucuses, Obama could be the surprise winner.

But Obama can take nothing for granted. And that means practicing flawless retail politics.

An Iowa win could be the rocket fuel Obama needs to kill all talk of Bush-Clinton, Bush-Clinton inevitability.