01/02/2008 09:58 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If Obama Wins Iowa, Gore May Become President

The conventional wisdom holds that, if Hillary wins in Iowa, she will likely run-the-table, with victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina and then enough of the February 5th states to put her way out in front. Add to that the super-delegates that she almost will assuredly have, and she would be unstoppable. The aura of inevitability would be replaced with inevitability itself.

If Obama wins Iowa, however, the story will become more complicated. It is likely that his popularity among independents would provide a comfortable margin in New Hampshire and then black voters in South Carolina, sensing that the chances for Barack actually to win have become real, would likely provide him a victory in that state as well.

Hillary, however, is not going to go away. The Clintons' network is too strong, the opportunity of scoring big wins on February 5th too real, the implied rejection of Bill Clinton by what is still an adoring Democratic electorate too painful, for them to go quietly into the night. The mantra from the Clinton campaign will quickly become, "it's about delegates, stupid." And, they are right, it is.

With Hillary battling on February 5th, and with sufficient funding and support in the big states to deny Barack an aura of inevitability, the battle for the Democratic nomination will resemble Reagan's 1976 challenge to the sitting President, Gerald Ford, or Gary Hart's 1984 challenge to former Vice-President Mondale, more than it will John Kerry's run in 2004.

Throw into that mix John Edwards who, whether he wins or loses in Iowa, is not going to fold either. Edwards has been running for president from the day he was elected Senator in North Carolina, and has no elective office to which he can return, and the dirty little secret is that he could not win elective office (e.g., Governor) if he were to return to North Carolina politics to await another day. Win or lose, this is his last hurrah. He has taken Federal campaign dollars and, while that limits the amount he can spend, it provides him the money to carry on. Given the sheer size of the February 5th menu, expect Edwards to be nibbling in several venues.

For different reasons, Bill Richardson will also likely continue through February 5th. If Biden does well in Iowa, he too may try to hang in there through February 5th.

What this may lead to is a delegate distribution that makes it impossible for one person to have the nomination locked up prior to the convention. (If Edwards wins in Iowa, a similar but even more complicated version of this story will play itself out; moreover, if Barack wins Iowa but Edwards beats Hillary, then Edwards will be competing with Hillary to take second in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and any success would weaken, but certainly not destroy, her prospects on February 5th.)

Moreover, if Barack wins the early primaries, expect a mainstream media frontal attack on whether he is "really" ready to be president. Hillary will try to be the recipient of that doubt, whereas Edwards has less experience than Barack, so is unlikely to benefit from it. The MSM likes to create personas and then destroy them. They did it to Gary Hart's "new ideas" in 1984, and they even did it to Ted Kennedy in 1980; after egging him into the race, they aired an interview prior to his announcement in which he said, naturally, that he had not decided, and portrayed this as Teddy not knowing why he was running. (Like Reagan in 1976, I would expect Barack to choose a Vice Presidential running mate early, forcing opponents to run against 'the ticket', and thus reducing anxieties that the MSM will build about his readiness. That will force his hand to choose a more partisan Democrat, whereas if he could wait, he would have had the freedom to make a more creative choice, that itself would be unifying to the country.)

With the potential of a truly fractured Democratic field, the one person who could heal that wound and set the race on fire would be Al Gore. Untarnished by the primary battles, redeemed both by his own successes and Bush's failed presidency, with a cause that percolates down to 1st graders who go on nature walks, and with a conviction not to be handled by "handlers" (who are killing Hillary now, as they did Gore in 2000), Gore would be perfectly positioned to run a winning fall campaign. Although Hillary herself would be loathe to "release" her supporters to Gore, many of the super-delegates and a large fraction of the actual delegates would nominate Gore in a heartbeat, and only those states where the delegates are committed on the first ballot could be held.

Just wishful thinking? I suggest not. So long as Hillary is not running-the-table, the question is whether any of the Democrats could do so, so long as Hillary remains in the race. Short of unlikely defeats in the New York and New Jersey primaries on February 5th, it is not likely she is going to fold her tent voluntarily.

Politics does indeed create strange bedfellows. I wrote earlier about Edwards, Hillary's harshest critic, keeping her viable through February 5th since much of his support would likely go to Obama if he were not in the race ("Miracle on Ice: Edwards is Hillary's Firewall to February 5th," December 17, 2007). Here, so long as Hillary remains in the race but is no longer the frontrunner, she is may be handing the nomination to Gore.