Raising Hill

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  September 12, 2007

Clinton seems intent on squashing any Obama momentum before it starts. Obama just launched an Iowa TV ad dubbing himself the candidate of change, for instance, and Clinton immediately launched one describing herself the same way. When Obama started emphasizing health-care reform on the stump, Clinton announced that she would unveil a detailed health-care-policy initiative this week. For every list of endorsers released by Obama — veterans in Iowa, for instance — Clinton’s campaign can beat it with a list twice as long.

So far her efforts have been successful, and Obama’s poll numbers have remained static all year. Obama knows he must do well in Iowa to kick start his momentum — if not a win, at least a strong second place, concedes one Obama staffer located there. The campaign has already opened an impressive 29 field offices in the Hawkeye State, and has a stronger organization there than many realize. “The sense of excitement and energy is high,” that staffer says. “The challenge is how to turn that into support on caucus night.”

And with Obama stalled, Edwards has maintained his viability, barely, by remaining at or near the lead in Iowa polls.

“Here in Iowa, Clinton is not viewed as the front-runner — Edwards is,” says a high-ranking member of another Democrat’s Iowa staff.

“Whoever has the best organization is probably going to win,” says Gordon Fischer, former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, who is unassociated with any of the candidates. “Right now, I think Edwards has the best organization in Iowa.”

But Edwards is dangerously close to appearing dead in the water, pundits say. Approaching desperation, he has recently increased his direct attacks on Clinton. “This is clearly Edwards’s last shot at it,” says Bill Mayer, a political-science professor at Northeastern University.

He is targeting both her electability among the general public, and her more cautious, conciliatory approach to issues — even directly tying her to the less Democrat-friendly deeds of Bill Clinton’s presidency, including welfare-to-work reform, the don’t-ask-don’t-tell compromise on gays in the military, and, most of all, the NAFTA trade agreement despised by organized labor.

That last item is especially crucial to Edwards. Lacking the funds of the Clinton and Obama campaigns, his hope lies with the endorsements and active support of organized labor, which he has been openly courting for at least two years, and which play a huge role in both Iowa and Nevada Democratic politics.

The national unions are now making their endorsement decisions — four have backed Edwards, one has picked Clinton — and the decision of the country’s second-biggest, the Service Employees International Union, is expected next week. They are said to be leaning toward Edwards; so are the Culinary Workers of America, which is considered the top prize in Nevada, with 60,000 members there.

In Edwards’s early-state strategy, Iowa and Nevada will propel him to strong showings in New Hampshire and in his birth state of South Carolina, where he won in 2004 but trails today. In other words, he needs to beat Obama in the four lead-off states, eliminating him from contention and making it a Clinton-Edwards race. Edwards’s message at that point: in 2004 it came down to me and the establishment front-runner, and you picked the wrong one. Don’t make that mistake twice.

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