According to one poll, McCain has officially become the FRONT-RUNNER again. If you take the famous margin of error into account, though, it’s a 4-way tie: John, Huck, Romney, and Giuliani. And they’re all below 20%. My tentative conclusion, based on our limited experience of McCain’s behavior as a candidate, is that he is probably peaking too soon for his own good.
If we had a national primary today with no runoff, either Huck or Rudy might win. (Or we might be stuck with a runoff between the two most extreme candidates.) But the truth is that they are both in desperate situations: Rudy’s "national" strategy has clearly collapsed, and it makes good sense to say that he’ll continue to fade as other candidates (probably Mitt and John) pick up frontloaded momentum.
Meanwhile, Huck has to win in Iowa to meet what might be objectively be called unreasonable expectations. The polls aren’t that clear on his situation; the newest one released this morning shows him still in the lead. But we have to assume that Romney has a better ground game, and that Huck will continue to be the focus of attacks from all directions. (The newest one [not supported by any evidence at all]: Fat Huck became thin Huck not through incredible self-discipline but through a gastric bypass.) And, although Huck did well and was treated well on MEET THE PRESS, he just doesn’t have the staff required to launch an effective counterattack. (Our friend Joe Carter no longer works for him, for example.)
McCain now has come to Huck’s defense against Romney. One "good man," the pretense is, is defending another. There’s obviously a lot of self-interest in John aiding Huck in his effort to hold on in Iowa. But there’s also some principle and even affection: John seems really to like Huck, but not Mitt. (And vice-versa.)
Actually, Mitt’s negative ads against Huck have been fair enough, and Huck’s decision to make a similar ad about Mitt’s flip-flopping record, show it to reporters, and not run it on TV is just strange.
Iowa, darn it, will probably turn out to be more important than ever. The likely effect of its caucusing will be to "winnow" the Republican race to two. One guy has yet to feel the love or inspire the confidence that comes with character displayed. The other has a record of self-destruction when in the lead as a way of perversely or self-righteously displaying his character. One relies too much on showing the competence of an experienced executive, the other has never been disciplined by having to shoulder the burden of being an executive. There’s something to be said for a McCain-Romney ticket, but that ain’t going to happen.
I can’t help but think that the post-Iowa story will be more complicated than a simple shoot-out between Mitt and John. (It’s likely, though, that a fatally wounded Huck will emphatically endorse McCain over Romney, and that’s the way, to repeat, that Mitt will probably have to pay for his somewhat successful negative campaigning in Iowa.)
On the Democratic side, as was explained below, Hillary is in big trouble if she doesn’t win. Actually, she’s not in bad shape if Edwards wins (showing Obama is not invincibly charismatic etc.), which I really think might happen. I admire the tenacious O that has kept Democratic John in the race against two formidable rivals. I’ll even say all three leading Democrats (well, four, if you include the persistent Biden) have been more impressive on the campaign trail than all the Republicans.