The Iowa Caucuses: Five Not-So-Unlikely Surprises

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The smart money -- not to mention the latest polls -- gives an edge to Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee in tonight's Iowa caucuses.

But take a couple hundred thousand Midwesterners, pack them into gyms and libraries and town halls on a frigid Iowa night, add a heaping measure of peer pressure to the equation, and, well, anything can happen.

Here are five unlikely results you that shouldn't be shocked to see when the final precinct tallies come in:

1) John Edwards Wins Going Away

No one in presidential campaign history has ever worked a state like John Edwards has worked Iowa. No one. But for a brief hiatus for the 2004 general election, Edwards has been campaigning there non-stop since early 2003. He's answered more questions from more voters at more diners and summer cookouts -- in every last corner of the state -- than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama combined.

(Hillary Clinton recently tried to barnstorm some of the state's far-flung counties by helicopter. Edwards, by contrast, has worked the backroads -- having personally visited each of the state's 99 counties -- not once but twice!)

For a process wherein your average caucus goers expect to have shaken the hand of the candidate they support, Edwards has simply reached out to more Iowans than his competitors. There's an intangibility to that personal connection. And it will likely pay off for Edwards in precincts in rural Western Iowa where he invested much of his time in 2003 -- and where he again outdid his opponents this cycle.

Then there's the Bill Richardson factor. The New Mexico governor is polling at 6 percent in the Hawkeye State -- largely on the strength of his Get-Out-ASAP prescription for ending the Iraq war. When Richardson fails to pull in the requisite 15 percent support needed to be considered "viable," his supporters will be forced to caucus in another corner, and guess who just endorsed a plan to pull all combat troops out within 10 months of taking office?

Finally, there's Edwards' unspeakable advantage -- shhh! -- he's the last white guy standing. As one prominent Democratic strategist told me earlier this cycle: "Obama and Clinton are terrific candidates, but they each represent an untested threshold in American politics. You have to entertain the idea that when Democrats really think about who is going to ensure that the party wins in 2008, a lot of people might get nervous and say, 'Damn it, we need a good-looking, charismatic white guy.' I hate to be crass. But that's baldfaced politics."

These folks are hiding in plain sight in the polls: Some are in Chris Dodd's camp. Others are backing Joe Biden. Others show up among the six percent of undecideds. As the Other White Guys become "non-viable" it shouldn't be a shock if their backers break, predominately, for Edwards.

All told, according to the latest Des Moines Register poll, 19 percent of likely caucus goers are uncommitted to a viable candidate. If even half of those folks find their way to Edwards, they'll call his victory a landslide.

2) Hillary Clinton Comes in Third

It's entirely possible that the top three Democratic candidates will emerge from Iowa as deadlocked as they entered it. And barring the kind of self-inflicted wound Dean caused with his infamous scream, all of this ado about Iowa may be moot, with the caucuses merely serving to kick the can to New Hampshire... where Edwards will fade, and Obama and Clinton can duke it out for real.

But Iowa will truly be a difference maker if the national front-runner takes only the bronze. And that could easily be Hillary's fate. It's easy to see how Edwards finishes stronger than he's polled. Ditto for Obama, who is counting on unprecedented turnout to goose his precinct tallies. But where are Hillary's hidden backers? I can't see them.

And neither, apparently, can the Clinton camp. Surrogate Tom Vilsack, Iowa's former governor, is already lowering expectations, spinning that a third-place finish would be just dandy.

But let's get real: If Obama wins, Edwards places, and Hillary tumbles into third by any notable margin, her candidacy could be toast. Inevitable candidates don't finish last.

3) Mitt Romney Springboards Toward Inevitability

Tonight, Mike Huckabee could well get his shoestring clipped -- and his clock cleaned -- by Mitt Romney. Huckabee's a grassroots, movement candidate, and his Jesus-fearing faithful may still propel him to victory. But Romney's got the money, the organization, and the plan.

His strong suit is supposed to be as an executive, and here's his chance to prove it. He rescued an Olympiad that seemed to be sunk in Salt Lake City, and he's got a chance to pull a similar rabbit out of his hat tomorrow night.

And if he can pull off a win in Iowa, Romney will emerge all the stronger for having fended off the Huckabee surge. Before Huck, it was hard to say Iowa mattered very much on the GOP side. But now, for Romney, this would have been a real victory against a formidable opponent -- and a huge momentum boost heading into his (vacation) home turf of New Hampshire.

They say Democrats fall in love with their candidates; Republicans fall in line. An Iowa-anointed Romney should have little trouble regaining his footing in the Granite State. And that one-two early-state punch would give him all the Big Mo he needs to tackle South Carolina.

If Romney takes Iowa, he could. go. all. the. way.

4) Ron Paul Clips McCain

Iowa is time for the Paul patrol to put up or shut up.

Everybody's favorite anti-war libertarian is in fourth, tied with Fred Thompson at 9 percent in that Register poll.

If Ron Paul's supporters can catapult him into third place, they will do more than prove their candidate is no novelty act. More important, the anti-war Republicans can also clip the wings of McCain, the GOP's biggest Iraq-war booster.

McCain is angling to be the Last Man Standing on the GOP side. If Huckabee kneecaps Romney, New Hampshire becomes McCain's for the taking, and you can see how he just might win a narrowed field against the Huckster in South Carolina and beyond.

But all of that is premised on his making a decent stand in Iowa. Lose to Ron Paul and you're not a viable candidate. Period.

5) The Youth Vote Makes All The Difference

Consider this fact: Likely caucus goers born after Watergate prefer Obama to Hillary Clinton 56 percent to 11 percent. The support for Obama among young women is even stronger.

There's no doubt the under-35 crowd are Obama's base. And he's done a remarkable job organizing them. He's hired the former political director of Rock the Vote. He's reached out to 17-year-old high school seniors -- his "Barack Stars" -- for support. And if you've been to an Obama rally this political season, you know he's got the star power to get them "fired up" and "ready to go."

Obama's campaign manager, David Ploufe, pointed to this secret trove of voters back in September, writing that "polls consistently under-represent in Iowa the strength of Barack's support among younger voters... Of course, there are organizational challenges associated with maximizing this support, but we are heavily focused on that task."

And here's the thing. In the last Iowa caucus only 124,000 people showed up. Obama doesn't need to bring 50,000 new caucus goers into the process. Given how tight this race appears to be, 5,000 or even 500 could easily push Obama over the edge.

How confident is Obama's camp about turning out new caucus goers? They're predicting a total turnout of 200,000.

We'll see soon enough.