Clinton on the slide as Iowa test looms

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The Independent US

Less than two weeks before the small, rural and mostly white state of Iowa decides who it would like in the White House, it indicated yesterday that it will reject the favourites in favour of two long-shot candidates, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee.

A result such as this on 3 January will be nothing short of revolutionary for the Democrats and Republicans. It will confirm what other polls around the country are already showing: that voters are clamouring for change in the 2008 election. A win for Senator Obama and former governor Huckabee in the Iowa Caucuses will send that demand ripping like a tornado across the country, influencing the rest of the important primary states in the process.

A poll from The Des Moines Register newspaper said yesterday that Senator Obama had pulled ahead in the race for the Democratic nomination, with Hillary Clinton in second place. A nightmare scenario now looms for the Clinton campaign in Iowa should she slip further to third place on caucus night.

It is the same story on the Republican side where the former no-hoper Mike Huckabee has emerged as a political giant-killer. He has leaped ahead of his well-funded Republican rival Mitt Romney to grab first place in a poll of Republicans. The Register said 29 per cent of Iowans who intend to brave January's freezing cold support him. That's an astonishing jump of 17 percentage points since the last poll in early October when the former TV evangelist trailed both Mr Romney and the former Law & Order television star Fred Thompson.

Southerners make popular presidential candidates and Mr Huckabee is no different. Running a seat-of-the-pants campaign, with little money in the bank, the former governor of Arkansas (like Bill Clinton) has tapped into a deep vein of support among Iowa's conservative Christians.

This is bad news for Mr Romney who bet the house on winning in Iowa, investing more time and money there than any other Republican. He has a small army of full-time staff and has spent tens of millions of dollars on a blizzard of television and radio ads to little effect. The former Massachusetts governor has fallen 5 points since October.

Rudy Giuliani remains the Republicans' front-runner nationally, (he has all but given up on Iowa) and he too is seeing his once-commanding lead in the country as a whole narrow. Mr Huckabee has now jumped into second place, just two points behind him.

There is a growing sense that voters would prefer to "throw the bums out" by rejecting the status quo candidates in favour of relative unknowns. Polling by The Wall Street Journal found two-thirds of voters expressing dissatisfaction the highest sustained level of unhappiness in 15 years.

It is most clearly seen in the campaign of the libertarian Congressman Ron Paul a radical isolationist who would take the knife to every aspect of government. He has raised $18m (9m) including a record $6m on a single day, Sunday and could do very well in the New Hampshire primary on 8 January and later on.

The Republican and Democratic contenders will spend the next two weeks charging around Iowa confronting voters who want to see change rather than stability.

There are also signs of panic in the Clinton campaign. She has hired a helicopter (her campaign calls it the Hillicopter) to crisscross Iowa more effectively, with mother, her husband and the basketball player Magic Johnston in tow. It's been branded a "like-ability tour" in which the focus of her campaign has switched from head to heart. No longer being pushed as a foreign policy hawk and a policy wonk on domestic issues, Bill Clinton is now stressing his wife's human side.

Last week, Dorothy Rodham, 88, emerged in the bone-chilling weather in Des Moines to testify that her daughter is a "good person". On Monday, Iowa was flooded with videos in which old friends, dating back to her junior school days talk about "The Hillary I know", telling of her great personality and sense of humour.

There has been an argument in the Clinton camp "that pits the voters' need to know their politicians against the comfort zone of a very private woman and the theories of her data-driven pollster", says a commentator for the online magazine Politico. Mrs Clinton's negative poll ratings remain high, however.

Whether it will work in time is hard to tell. As a campaign worker for Mrs Clinton in New Hampshire told The Washington Post: "I'm nervous. Obama's campaign feels like Jack Kennedy's. They seem so excited. When I call Hillary's headquarters, there's no electricity. It's scary."

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