I'm gearing up to go to New Hampshire later this month (ten days of on-the-ground blog reporting up until primary day), lining up interviews and meetings and so forth. So I wanted to share some sense of what the campaign looks like to me right now.
As nearly as I can tell, the race has four moving parts right now: Clark, Dean, Gephardt and Kerry. And the four candidates are in motion like the interlocking pieces of a clock, each affecting the other in multidimensional ways.
Look for instance, at the American Research Group New Hampshire tracking poll. To the best of my knowledge, ARG is the only outfit currently running a public daily tracking poll.
Going back to the day after Christmas, there are three candidates consistently over 5%: Clark, Dean and Kerry. Clark and Dean have been strikingly consistent over the ten day period, with Clark at 12/13% and Dean at 37%.
(In the last two days, Dean has hit 38% and then 39%. But it's too early to see if that's a trend.)
The one clear trend line is a slow deterioration for Kerry. He started at 19% percent and went down a point each day until he settled at 14%.
Tracking polls are notoriously volatile. And the sample sizes are small. But I think there's consistent enough downward movement there to say something is happening.
Yet, this downdraft is not inconsistent with Kerry's strategy, as I understand it. Or, more accurately, not something they haven't accounted for.
Kerry is making a renewed and intense push in Iowa, figuring that he can't restart his campaign in New Hampshire and has to look for a springboard elsewhere.
I haven't seen any recent polls out of Iowa. But anecdotal reports say he's making some progress and gathering some steam there. The press will need some unexpected story out of Iowa in a couple weeks. And if Kerry surpasses whatever his expectations threshold is there, then he could be the story of the week going into New Hampshire, quite possibly reversing the deterioration which is now so evident there. It's the electoral equivalent of a very long hail mary pass.
But where is that threshold? It's hard to see how a Kerry surge in Iowa could be anything but a footnote unless he actually comes in second. And that seems hard to figure.
But where is that threshold? That's a key question.
Another data point that stands out in the ARG numbers is Clark. Though Kerry is falling, Clark seems to be locked in at 12% or 13%. If Kerry falls far enough in New Hampshire, then it really will be a Dean/Clark race.
But that will be by default. With all the other candidates save these three polling so poorly in New Hampshire, and with Kerry slipping, you'd really expect Clark to be gaining at least some ground. But at least by the evidence of the ARG poll, he's not.
Again, we're dealing with limited data here: one tracking poll. But Clark's putting lots of resources into the state now. If Kerry's decline doesn't reverse, when does he start to move? And if not, why not?
Then we have Dick Gephardt, for whom everything is Iowa. Like Kerry, he's looking for that Iowa leverage to propel him into a two-man race with Howard Dean. On TV this morning The Des Moines Register's David Yepsen (the 'wise man' of the Iowa caucuses) gave the impression that there is still a very real race in Iowa.
He also seemed to say that the mix of attacks and stumbles over the last month hasn't hurt Dean, in the sense of eroding his support, but has for the moment at least arrested any further gains. With a large pool of undecideds, that's important.
Dean's strategy here is the most straightforward: run down the clock. Get through both of these primaries with solid wins, prevent any of the other three candidates from significantly exceeding expectations, and end January with so much momentum than even the opposing candidate in the inevitable two-man race simply can't catch up.
One final thought: an interesting strategic question.
Would Clark gain more from a solid Iowa victory for Dean which effectively ended Gephardt's and Kerry's candidacies (thus forcing a two-man race by default) or by one of the other candidates breaking out, thus knocking Dean significantly off his stride?