Iowa's upside

The long windup to a presidential campaign is filled with punditry. Organization trumps, we're told, money will out, the base is key, voters like a winner. And then voters begin to speak, as they did this week in Iowa and will again Tuesday in New Hampshire. Their response inevitably confounds the speculation that preceded it, and happily so. In Iowa, months of fevered campaigning and record sums of cash proved just one thing: Neither Republicans nor Democrats have settled on a winner. Thank goodness.

If Iowa did not yield sure winners, however, it did create some losers, chief among them Hillary Rodham Clinton. The New York senator's candidacy is based on two essential premises: Democrats are so nostalgic for a Clinton presidency that despite their many reservations they will accept Hillary even though she is not Bill, and her victory, backed by party regulars and big money, is inevitable.

Those assumptions were reinforced with stories of her campaign's organizational might -- of the volunteers who would shuttle Iowans to meeting halls and baby-sit their children while they cast their lots with her. Not anymore. As of this week, neither Clinton's organizational strength nor her inevitability amounts to much. She poured money and credibility into Iowa and lost, finishing not just second but third, and though on election night she portrayed herself as a winner, she appeared the opposite. She is not out of the race. Far from it. But candidates whose support is predicated on the idea that they cannot lose take a terrible tumble when they do. One need only reflect on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's 1980 campaign to knock off President Carter.

On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee's victory deflates Mitt Romney, stymies Fred Thompson, confounds John McCain and dramatically raises the challenge for Rudolph W. Giuliani, who finished so far down as to barely make the fine print of the returns. None of which is terribly surprising, but Huckabee managed to do all that damage to his opponents without doing that much to advance his own prospects. Defeat likely awaits him in New Hampshire, which is far less hospitable terrain for Huckabee's religious conservatism -- that state's flinty right wing is a different breed from Iowa's Christian version. The hill winds of New Hampshire blow much more McCain-cranky than Huckabee-preachy.

And yet, if Huckabee's advance is marginal, Romney's defeat is palpable. Romney once was governor of New Hampshire's border state, Massachusetts, and once was pro-choice. He once was skeptical of Ronald Reagan. He's none of that now -- he's a former abortion-rights supporter and newfound Reagan acolyte. GOP conservatives long for a standard-bearer, a position Romney desperately seeks to claim. But Romney's drifting principles have made him suspect, and the right rejected him last week. His future may be decided Tuesday in the Granite State.

And what of Fred Thompson, so long anticipated by Republican conservatives and yet so plodding upon his late arrival? Iowa's tepid response to his candidacy -- 13% is nothing to crow about, even in a big field -- gives him reason to consider what might have been had he entered the race earlier and contested it more vigorously. South Carolina could be his salvation, or his end.

We should all be glad that Iowa does not pick our presidents. It would have given us many duds over the years. But we should be equally grateful that its careful and dedicated caucus participants tend to look past front-runners and anoint candidates who resonate in its peculiar political environment. For better or for worse, Iowans appreciate personality. They know sincerity. It is no accident that the melodious Barack Obama and genuine Huckabee struck chords with them.

And here is the favor those voters have done the rest of us: By rejecting the favorites of many party regulars, Iowa has all but ensured that a wide field will make it all the way to Super-Duper Tuesday, Feb. 5, when California and 23 other states will make their choices. That day will be one of diversity -- urban liberals in California and New York will get to vote along with North Dakota farmers, Illinois factory workers, West Virginia miners and the rest of the deliciously broad American spectrum. That's the right electorate to pick a president. Iowa's vote this week keeps that possibility alive.

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