According to the latest tracking polls, John Kerry has pulled slightly ahead in what has become a four-way race in Iowa.
This is bad news, since Kerry’s surge has spelled an end to the “Clark vs. Dean” speculation that has just begun to percolate in the press.
In order for Wesley Clark to become the consensus candidate against Howard Dean, Dean has to win Iowa. And the bigger the win, the better. If Dean wins by, say, 3 percentage points or more, then Clark will get his two-person race.
If Dick Gephardt wins, then Clark can still finish sufficiently strong in New Hampshire, but the Gepper, strong in the Midwest, could foil Clark’s plans to consolidate the so-called Anti-Dean vote on Feb. 3rd.
From there, the possibilities get worse. Kerry wins, further spreading the “Thinking Democrat” vote. At the next debate, everyone attacks Clark. Dean exploits the fractured opposition, taking New Hampshire and steamrolling his way to the nomination. Dean’s supporters, long known to have more anger than brains, drag the rest of the party into another four years of political oblivion.
My prediction: Dean wins Iowa by a slim margin. For all Kerry’s and John Edwards’ supposed gains, they don’t have the ground operation to compete with Dean and Gephardt. And that’s just what I’d like to see happen: Kerry and Edwards “surge,” but still finish a disappointing third and fourth, respectively.
As long as Kerry finishes third or worse, Clark will be sitting pretty in N.H. and beyond.