Round one to Barack Obama, round two to Hillary Clinton, and just like that the retail politics is over, and the national slugfest begins.
Obama and Clinton spent more than a year courting voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. They have less than a month to woo nearly half the rest of the country.
Obama’s perfectly timed surge of momentum won him the Iowa caucus; the Clintons’ immense New Hampshire popularity provided her a firewall. The rest of the impressive Democratic field, unable to dislodge either of the two superstars, has now fallen to the side (though John Edwards soldiers on, as of this writing).
The two participants vying for a Super Bowl slot have been decided. No more practice games — they are locked in combat until one prevails.
So where do they go from here?
In the four weeks between the New Hampshire primary and Super Tuesday, the Democrats have only two meaningful contests: a January 19 Nevada caucus, which will be overshadowed by the GOP’s steel-cage death match in South Carolina the same day; and the Democrats’ own South Carolina primary on January 26, which will provide a first look at how black voters make their Obama/Clinton decision.
Those contests will provide an interesting distraction, and offer tea leaves for predicting the big games, but neither is likely to provide a huge burst of momentum. Even less significant will be the party-boycotted contests in Michigan and Florida.
What will matter far more is the coming flurry of state-by-state polls for the nearly two dozen February 5th contests — which will award roughly half of the 3248 “pledged” delegates to the national convention. (Another roughly 800 “superdelegates,” mostly party leaders, get to vote as they wish.)
Those polls (along with the candidates’ own) will determine which states are the battlegrounds — and, thus, what messages and strategies the candidates might adopt.
The terrain appears to favor Clinton. Super Tuesday states include the delegate-rich tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, which the New York senator should win in a cakewalk. Arkansas is another gimme for the state’s former first lady. And Massachusetts, despite Governor Deval Patrick’s support for Obama, is solid Clinton country. (Voter disappointment in Patrick might actually prove a drawback to Obama.)
Those five states award nearly a third of that day’s 1600+ delegates. Obama’s only obvious Super Tuesday advantage appears to be his home state of Illinois — though native daughter Clinton might put on her Cubs hat and put up a fight there.
They’ll presumably pick fights in the South and Midwest, but the big prize — and the most expensive — is California. The statewide winner gets 129 delegates, and another 241 are divvied up by congressional district.
If Clinton wins California, to go along with New York, it will be a tough climb to the nomination for Obama.
December polls — prior to Obama’s Iowa victory — showed Clinton with a solid lead in California. What they show in the next couple of weeks will, at least to a degree, define the race.
If Obama appears to be leading in that race, watch for the Illinois senator to act like the front-runner — the avalanche peoples’ choice, the history-making bandwagon you want to be part of.