The great thing about America is that anyone can be president. After all, a one-time Missouri haberdasher did it, and so did a Georgia peanut farmer, a Hollywood actor and, yes, even the son of a former president. But now add the most amazing possibility of all to that list: the mixed-race son of a Kenyan father and Kansan mother, whose middle name is Hussein and who less than four years ago was utterly unknown on the national stage.
Barack Obama's victory in Iowa's Democratic caucuses has reshaped the most exciting contest for the White House in almost a generation. It has catapulted him past the redoubtable Hillary Clinton (wife of a former president) into the role of front-runner for his party's nomination, in an election that the Democrats are overwhelming favourites to win.
Yes, there were Republican caucuses too last Thursday, won by a man who has a pretty improbable White House pedigree himself the son of a fireman from deepest Arkansas and an ordained Southern Baptist minister, until now best known as a self-confessed "foodaholic" who lost 110lb after a diagnosis of diabetes.
But Mike Huckabee's victory will probably prove more ephemeral. He is unlikely to do well in New Hampshire, whose vote the day after tomorrow is the next event of this fast-forward presidential primary season. John McCain, the Arizona Senator, has a narrow lead over Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, who desperately needs a win after his dismal second-place finish in Iowa, where he outspent Mr Huckabee 20-to-one. Whatever happens on Tuesday night, however, no less than five Republicans may still be in with a plausible shot at the nomination.
Not so among Democrats. With all due respect to John Edwards, who pushed Mrs Clinton into an embarrassing third place in Iowa, theirs is a two-person race between Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama (inset). In New Hampshire Mr Edwards is running a clear third. He is already at a substantial financial disadvantage to his rivals, and another defeat may doom his candidacy. What is astonishing is that the same may now be true of Mrs Clinton.
For most of last year, she was considered an all but certain nominee, ahead in October by as much as 30 per cent in national polls over the upstart Mr Obama. Her entire campaign was built on this aura of inevitability. But Iowa blew that aura away and the strategy of her advisers, stressing her experience above all, may prove to have been a massive blunder.
"Ready to lead" has been the Clinton watchword, attempting to capitalise on her eight years as First Lady, close to the nerve centre of US power, and on her highly competent performance in the Senate since 2001. In another year that might have been the perfect sales pitch but not in this strange and confusing campaign 2008.
Every presidential election is different. Sometimes voters want a safe pair of hands. Sometimes they look for a strong leader or a hero. Occasionally they just want a nice guy. But every now and then America yearns for a person to provide hope and inspiration, to make them feel better. Amid the failure of the Bush presidency, the loss of US prestige and the threat of recession, 2008 is shaping up as one of those years. And that inspirational individual, suddenly and exhilaratingly, looks like Barack Obama.
His recovery since the autumn could not have been better timed. Over the next 30 days, no less than 30 states will hold primaries and caucuses for one or both parties. Momentum that mixture of good results, favourable headlines and buzz that the first President Bush once called "the Big Mo" is always precious in as vast an electoral landscape as the US. But never has it been more valuable than this year, when candidates have so little time to correct mistakes and reverse public perceptions. That is the problem faced by Hillary Clinton.
Between Iowa and New Hampshire, she will have had just five days to right the ship. Then comes Michigan, and before the end of the month South Carolina, traditionally the third important early poll, where black voters will for the first time be an important factor, followed by Florida.
The really big day, however, is 5 February, when primaries and caucuses take place in some two dozen states, including the giants of California, New York and Illinois. The results may well decide the Democratic (though perhaps not the Republican) contest. Mrs Clinton has a massive nationwide organisation. But even that may not make up for a demoralising defeat in New Hampshire, and in South Carolina, where Mr Obama is starting to claim the African-American vote once loyal to the Clintons.
Nothing of course is sure. Right now Obama, with his dazzling oratory, his compelling personal history and resonant message of change, is on a roll. Even among women, he outpolled Mrs Clinton in Iowa. Independents (a key factor in New Hampshire) are flocking to him, not least because in this Democratic year he is seen as less polarising and divisive than his rival. No less important, he is attracting young people. For all the advertised wonders of the internet and YouTube, under-25s have hitherto never voted in great numbers. If Iowa is any guide, however, a vote for Obama is cool.
But as a front-runner for the nomination, he will come under tougher scrutiny. Questions about his record and his private life will be intense and, who knows, some scandal or skeleton in his past may be discovered and exhumed. Never underestimate the calibre of the Clinton machine, or the resilience that runs in the family. Bill Clinton is not only the smartest politician of his generation. He was also 1992's "comeback kid", who survived womanising and Vietnam-draft scandals.
But it will be a hard battle. Scandals seem not to resonate as they once did and who wants to be the person who trashes the Obama model of the American Dream? Nor is Mrs Clinton the stump operator her husband is. She exudes a fearsome competence, but little of his warmth and empathy. If she is to rebrand herself in New Hampshire, she has only a long weekend to do it and rebranding might merely add to suspicions she is opportunistic and insincere.
Her basic problem is to reconcile experience and change. Her speech after the Iowa result illustrated this perfectly. "Change" featured in her every sentence. Yet there beside her were her husband, and the likes of former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, stalwarts of Clinton administrations past. "A bridge to the 20th century," someone joked, upending the 1996 Clinton campaign slogan of "a bridge to the 21st century". The whole thing smacked of a restoration, just when the country is in the mood for the new and the different. Right now, the bridge to America's future looks not like Hillary Clinton, but a Kansan-Kenyan named Barack Obama.Reuse content