The presidential race is now entering its most dangerous period for the front-runners in each party - Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. With each boasting consistent and formidable leads in most national polling, the leading candidate in each party must now prove his and her mettle by winning in a small state among a relative handful of voters.
And Iowa can be a funny place. When a presidential campaign, funded and staffed on a national scale, crams itself into a tiny state, the resulting overkill makes the outcome hard to predict. Even candidates whose resources could not yet begin to cover the entire country - Huckabee for example - can effectively blanket Iowa.
So far, the trends in Iowa are not good for either front-runner. Hillary holds only the narrowest of leads over Obama - less than two points in the recent Iowa Straw Poll - a survey which also found Rudy running a disastrous fourth on the Republican side of the ledger.
Hillary's vulnerability is especially interesting now that the Democrats running against her seem determined to take off their gloves and go after the front runner. The Marquis of Queensbury rules that have restrained them seem to have fallen by the wayside and a tag team of Obama, Edwards, and Dodd appears ready to deconstruct her bit by bit.
By himself, it is clear that Obama lacks the starch to go after Hillary. In Tuesday night's debate, Tim Russert set up an opportunity for the Illinois Senator with his first question, probing why he felt she was lacking in candor. Instead of charging into the fray, as Russert's question invited, he began by denigrating the media hype about his remarks.
If Obama played T-ball, he'd bunt!
But John Edwards seems to have a bracing effect on the reluctant dragon from Illinois. His trial lawyer style, eviscerating Hillary while smiling all the time, appears to be making headway. Between them, with a bit of Chris Dodd thrown in, Hillary was team-tackled on Tuesday night.
However, it is Hillary herself who creates her own vulnerability. With linguistic obfuscation reminiscent of Bill's more famous remarks - "I didn't inhale" and "It depends on what the definition of is, is" - Senator Clinton is determined not to tell us where she stands on anything.
Instead, she has come to believe, probably correctly, that if we knew what she really wants to do as president, we would never vote for her. So on Social Security (where she plans to raise taxes), Iran (where she will take military action if need be), Iraq (where she will keep the troops), the Alternative Minimum Tax (which she will only repeal if it can be used to hide massive tax increases) and drivers licenses (which she will give to illegals as soon as she can), Hillary resists telling the truth. And, under the scrutiny of opponents like Edwards and Dodd, and the questioning of Tim Russert, it is becoming obvious even to demented Democrats.
So can Hillary be beaten in Iowa? It all depends on whether, in this era of daily polling, her opponents can coalesce around whoever is in second place. Hillary won't win a majority in Iowa, but, if Edwards and Obama continue to split the anti-Hillary vote, she will win a plurality. Such a victory will let her get out of Des Moines alive and will pave the way for truly dominating victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan - then Florida and the rest of the nation will fall in line.
But if Edwards defers to Obama - or, more likely, his voters realize that they must back Barack in order to stop Hillary - a viable alternative to the New York senator could emerge. If Obama beats Hillary, even by the narrowest of margins, her entire sense of inevitability will vaporize and she could be defeated as the primary cycle continues.
The key is that Edwards, Obama and Dodd must devote their resources to relentless negative advertising and media attacks against Hillary and need to band together in the remaining debates to expose her falsifications of her positions. (Richardson, auditioning for vice president, and Biden, indulging his mid-life crisis, won't do it.) But if the trio of her vigorous opponents, do their work, maybe, just maybe, she can be stopped.
© Dick Morris & Eileen McGann