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Word has it that Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack will file federal papers today to form a presidential campaign committee. Not an exploratory committee, a campaign committee -- Vilsack for President. He's expected to make an official announcement later this month in his home town of Mount Pleasant.

So, with 14 months and 5 days to go, Let's take a look at the Iowa Caucus 2008: Earlybird Analysis

The Schedule

With the calendar set by the Democratic National Committee, we have a January 2008 caucus/primary schedule that looks like this:

Iowa Caucus Jan. 14
Nevada Caucus Jan. 19
New Hampshire Primary Jan. 22
South Carolina Primary Jan. 29

The Battleground

To get a perspective on the geopolitical layout of Iowa, this is an excellent site with maps that show the counties scaled relative to the number of delegates they elect, to produce a more accurate visual weighting. This really puts the 2004 results in perspective, and it shows the political significance of various regions of the state.

Polk County -- Des Moines -- in south-central Iowa is easily the largest, sending 430 delegates to the state convention, while Osceola County in the northwest corner of the state sends just 4. Aside from Des Moines, most of the population centers are in the eastern half of the state: Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Davenport, Iowa City and Dubuque. Two smaller cities, Council Bluffs and Sioux City, are on the Nebraska border.

In 2004, John Kerry won 38% of the delegates, primarily by winning in the cities concentrated in eastern Iowa. John Edwards won 32% of the delegates, winning Polk County and performing well in rural areas, especially in southern Iowa. Howard Dean won 18%, mostly with second- and third-place finishes across the state.

The Contenders

For an assessment of how the likely candidates stack up in Iowa at this early stage, we can look at several things: The Des Moines Register's Iowa Poll of likely Democratic caucus-goers from the summer, rankings by political analysts, as well as the performance of those candidates who ran in 2004.

Tier 1: Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama

Tier 2: John Kerry, Tom Vilsack

Tier 3: Evan Bayh, Russ Feingold

Tier 4: Joe Biden, Wesley Clark, Tom Daschle, Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson

Breaking down the candidates still further, we can make an estimate of where in the state they are likely to fare better or worse. Some candidates appear -- based on past performance, biography, personality and political views -- more likely to appeal in rural areas, while others probably will do better with urban voters.

Iowa is about 60% urban and 40% rural, and surveys have shown that suburbanites in Iowa, unlike in some other states with larger cities, tend to be somewhat more similar in thinking and culture to rural voters.

Urban: Clinton (1), Obama (1), Kerry (2), Vilsack (2), Feingold (3), Biden (4), Dodd (4), Richardson (4)

Rural: Edwards (1), Bayh (3), Clark (4), Daschle (4)

Note that this is not a simple equation of: liberal = urban, moderate = rural. It is the perception of the candidate by particular voters that is critical. For example: Would rural Iowa Democrats perceive Clinton or Edwards to be more electable? Would urban Iowa Democrats view Obama or Clark as more progressive?

Likely strongholds for Tier 1-3 candidates:

Clinton: Cedar Rapids and other eastern Iowa cities -- she leads Edwards by 14 points in the 2nd congressional district in the Iowa Poll.
Edwards: Des Moines, southern and central Iowa -- he leads Clinton by double digits in the 3rd and 4th districts in the Iowa Poll, and beat Kerry in Polk County in 2004.
Obama: Waterloo -- large population of African-Americans, at least for Iowa -- other cities.
Kerry: Dubuque -- heavily Catholic population.
Vilsack: Mount Pleasant -- home town.
Bayh: Davenport -- more conservative city, located closest to Indiana.
Feingold: Iowa City -- University of Iowa.

It looks like the eastern Iowa urban vote could be the most heavily contested. Four Tier 1 and Tier 2 candidates are likely to make their strongest showings in Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Dubuque and Waterloo, and a Tier 3 candidate (Feingold) also seems likely to perform well in Iowa City.

The central and southern areas of the state look at this point to be less heavily contested, as one Tier 1 and one Tier 3 candidate seem likely to run their strongest in Des Moines and its suburbs, Ames, Ottumwa and a large swath of rural Iowa.

Several of the Tier 4 candidates have strong national security credentials, which might help them perform their best in Sioux City, Council Bluffs, and western Iowa in general.

Key Questions About The Contenders:

Clinton: Do Iowa Democrats believe she's too polarizing to win? Will they make the "historic leap" to nominate a woman? Will she be able to compete all across the state (a minimum of 15% support is required in a precinct to get any delegates in that precinct)? Will she run? (I'll be surprised if she doesn't, but some people apparently aren't so sure.)

Edwards: Can he retain his support from 2004, as the Iowa Poll appeared to indicate? Will his focus on domestic issues appeal to caucus-goers, or will they prefer a longer resume on national security? Will the Des Moines Register endorse him again? What happens if his wife's health declines?

Obama: Will he run? Will Iowa Democrats make the "historic leap" to nominate an African-American? Will people think he's jumping the gun, or that he needs to gain more experience in office? Will he be viewed as electable by rural Iowans?

Kerry: Will he run, after the "botched joke" media blitz? Can he regain the support he appears to have lost from 2004? Will Democrats give a previous nominee a second chance?

Vilsack: Will he stay in the race if his poll numbers in Iowa don't improve by a certain time? How can he convince more Iowans to take him seriously as a presidential contender? If he drops out, will he endorse someone else?

Bayh: Is he too far to the right for Democratic caucus-goers? Will his electoral successes in Indiana make him appear electable? What can he do to distinguish himself from the field in a way that will appeal to Iowa Democrats?

Feingold: Do Iowa Democrats view him as electable? Will they make the "historic leap" to nominate a Jew? Will his consistent opposition to the war be a decisive factor? Will being from a neighboring state help him more than it did Dick Gephardt?

Biden: Will he get a fresh look, or is the consensus that his time has come and gone? Is he viewed as too gaffe-prone?

Clark: Will his military credentials appeal to Iowa Democrats? Will they take a chance on someone who has never been elected to office? How much smoother will he be on the stump and in debates than in 2004?

Daschle: Will he be taken seriously after his loss in South Dakota?

Dodd: How can he distinguish himself in a crowded field? Does another Northeasterner get a look?

Richardson: Will Iowa Democrats make the "historic leap" of nominating a Hispanic? Will he be viewed as the "other" governor in the race?

One Final Question:

Will Al Gore change his mind and decide to run? He would no doubt start off as a Tier 1 candidate, and I would tend to see him competing better in urban rather than rural Iowa, making the competition for that vote even more fierce. It also would seem to be better for him to make that decision earlier rather than later; it will have been 8 years since Iowans got to see him up close and personal. They have come to expect candidates to put in the full time on the campaign trail in the state, and they tend to punish those who don't. Also, jumping in late might give the impression of a rash decision, which could cause some Iowans to question how committed to the race he would remain.

Bold Predictions:

Edwards: 40%
Clinton: 23%
Obama: 17%
Feingold: 9%
Clark: 6%
Richardson: 3%
Bayh: 2%

Daschle will drop out, followed by Dodd, Biden and Vilsack (who will endorse Clinton). Kerry and Gore will not run.

Originally posted to MeanBoneII on Thu Nov 09, 2006 at 05:23 AM PST.

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