For the Democrats, it is almost certain at this point that Clinton and Obama will have the media coverage and the money to chase the nomination beyond the two opening contests. The question is whether any other Democrats will join them. By doing well in Iowa, Edwards could grab the populist mantle, and the campaign contributions that go with it. If he collapses, another second-tier candidate could rise to fulfill that role.
KEY DATES Iowa caucus, January 3; New Hampshire primaries, January 8
PREDICTION On the Republican side, Huckabee wins Iowa and McCain wins New Hampshire. For the Democrats, Iowa goes Obama-Edwards-Clinton and New Hampshire goes Obama-Clinton-Edwards, sending the three of them to battle in South Carolina.
ELIMINATED Dodd, Biden, and Richardson
Leg 2: Grinding for position (January 9 through February 4)
The contests will be fully defined during the four weeks between the New Hampshire primary and Super Tuesday. Four years ago, John Kerry, Howard Dean, Edwards, and Wes Clark emerged from New Hampshire with campaigns intact, but by Super Tuesday it was down to Kerry and Edwards. In 1988 this was the period when a crowded field was narrowed to Michael Dukakis and Al Gore.
This year, due to their clumsy mishandling of the schedule, the Democrats have just one big contest during these four weeks: South Carolina. The party is boycotting the Michigan and Florida contests, and Nevada’s has become so marginalized that Oprah Winfrey didn’t even bother to include it on her big tour for Obama.
South Carolina will be the first big contest between Obama and Clinton for the Southern black vote. But don’t forget that Edwards won the state in 2004 — if he gets momentum, he will camp out there 24/7, hoping to be left in a two-person race with the Clinton-Obama survivor.
The Republicans, on the other hand, have votes in Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina, Florida, and Maine — meaning that the candidates might split up to concentrate on states most amenable to them, in hopes of staying viable until February 5.
KEY DATES Michigan primary, January 15; South Carolina primaries, January 19 (Republican) and 26 (Democrat); Florida primary, January 29
PREDICTION For the Republicans, South Carolina and Florida turn into two-man contests between Huckabee and McCain, eliminating any other candidates not named Giuliani. Clinton wins South Carolina, setting up a Clinton-Obama national showdown.
ELIMINATED Thompson and Romney
Leg 3: Delegate counting (February 5 thrOugh March 31)
Up until February 5, the votes are purely for positioning. Beginning that day, it’s all about the delegates.
And it’s largely about that one day. More than 20 states have opted to hold their primaries or caucuses that Tuesday, the earliest allowed by the two parties for all but a few states. More than 2000 Democratic Party delegates will be chosen that day, of 4417 total. Republicans will select 1081 of their 2516 delegates.
The Republican process is particularly tilted toward national front-running candidates, thanks to the winner-take-all delegate-award rules for most state primaries, including California, New York, New Jersey, and Ohio. A string of solid second-place finishes is a sure-fire strategy for elimination.