It now seems possible, and some would say probable, that both front-runners for their party nominations will be wiped out in the early caucuses and primaries. It may well be that neither Hillary Clinton nor Rudy Giuliani win anything before the Florida primary on Jan. 29.
Hillary is now behind in Iowa and her lead in New Hampshire has dwindled from an average of 19 percent in five polls in October to a 13 percent average in five polls in the first half of November to only 9 percent in four polls at the end of the month. In the last two polls, she holds only a 7-point lead (source: www.realclearpolitics.com). If Hillary loses Iowa, it is easy to see her sinking in New Hampshire five days later.
Giuliani may fare no better. Clearly he is on his way to a humiliating defeat in Iowa where he inexplicably chose not to spend time or resources. He looks to finish third but a late surge by John McCain could knock him into fourth. Mike Huckabee will probably win Iowa, followed by a faltering Mitt Romney. Rudy trails Romney in New Hampshire and a defeat in Iowa will do nothing to bolster his chances there.
If Romney wins in New Hampshire, his momentum combined with his father's tenure as governor will likely power him to a win in Michigan. And there is no way that the most conservative primary in the most conservative state (the South Carolina Republican contest) will prove beneficial for the most liberal Republican candidate. Rudy could lose Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina.
Does that mean that Hillary and Rudy will be dead? No. They will probably still win their parties' nominations.
The only question people have been asking in the Democratic primary is, "Can we trust Hillary to tell us the truth?" Obviously one can't.
There is only one way for Hillary to shift the focus onto Obama or John Edwards: lose. By losing in Iowa and New Hampshire, she makes the key question not her veracity but Obama's or Edwards's ability to win.
Democrats are going to be reluctant to nominate someone they know so little about as Obama and will wonder if the nation is ready for an African-American candidate (it is) or for a man who has been senator for 104 weeks before running for president (it's not). They will also wonder about nominating Edwards, who lost twice in 2004. When the question becomes viability, not credibility, Hillary is in a league of her own with her ability to bring new female voters to the polls.
The question that has dominated the GOP contest is, "Should we nominate someone as liberal as Rudy on social issues?" The answer among the stalwarts is obviously no. As long as the social conservatives are divided among four candidates, Rudy has a shot. But when they rally behind one man (probably Huckabee) conservatives outnumber moderates in Republican primaries, particularly if the independents are drawn into the Democratic primary by Hillary's new vulnerability.
But by losing, Rudy shifts the focus. Republicans will ask, "Is America ready to elect a Mormon?" (unfortunately not) and, "Are we ready to go with Romney or Huckabee who have no experience in foreign or military affairs?" Once again, Rudy will profit from the shift in focus his defeat in the early contests will trigger.
Of course, the real question that will determine Giuliani's fate is how seriously we take the threat of terrorism. There is no reason to nominate Giuliani except for his demonstrated ability to fight terrorism. This threat is the only way a Republican can win and Rudy has a huge edge in making terrorism his issue. But the subject has been virtually absent from the Republican debates of late and the national discourse. Rudy needs to get that fixed if he is to have a chance to recover from early defeats.
But recover they both likely will. Remember how Gary Hart beat Mondale in New Hampshire in 1984 and Mondale came back to win? And how Paul Tsongas beat Clinton there in 1992 and Clinton eventually won? And how McCain defeated Bush in New Hampshire in 2000 but how Bush came back to win? Different year. New candidates. Same deal.