WASHINGTON — For now, the Democratic presidential campaign has become a four-letter word:
The campaign’s first voting state has become so vital that all the Democrats are focused on it. It’s where front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton hopes to begin a no-stumbles sprint to the nomination, and it’s the one place her opponents have a chance to slow her.
Most state and national polls indicate Clinton is strong, but her opponents see reason for hope in just the past couple of weeks.
Clinton had what even she acknowledged was a less-than-stellar debate performance in late October — though she fought back more effectively in the next one. She’s had to contend with the embarrassing news that campaign operatives planted questions at events. And she’s been on the defensive about her vote for a Senate resolution on Iran, portrayed by her rivals as an early step toward war.
Yet if Clinton can win Iowa, she seems headed toward the nomination. She has comfortable leads in the states that follow and tens of millions of dollars to continue a vigorous fight.
First she must get past Iowa, which she has called her “toughest state.” A loss there could make her look vulnerable and create a competitive race for the 2,104 delegates needed to secure the nomination at next year’s convention, to be held Aug. 25-28 in Denver.
The early states and how they stack up
IOWA — Jan. 3 caucus (45 pledged delegates)
State polls show a tight race among Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, with the rest of the field lagging behind. But polling is notoriously difficult among potential caucus participants, making the true state of play very difficult to gauge.
Clinton’s strategists believe a key source of potential strength lies with women who have never attended one of the state’s 1,784 precinct caucuses. The campaign is building a “buddy system” to match experienced caucus participants with the novices, and is offering transportation and child care.
The Obama campaign has a similar strategy with young voters, connecting them with veteran caucus goers. The “Barack Stars” are high school seniors supporting the Illinois senator — they can vote in caucuses if they’ll turn 18 by the time of the general election Nov. 4 — and he has strong support among college students. A more high-powered star, Oprah Winfrey, will join Obama again on the campaign trail in Iowa, as well as in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the candidate’s campaign said Monday.
The talk show host and media mogul plans to visit Iowa on Saturday, Dec. 8, with stops in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. The following day, she’ll travel to Columbia, S.C. Later that day, Obama’s campaign said, she’ll go to Manchester, N.H.
In September, Winfrey rolled out the red carpet for Obama at a California fundraiser that brought in about $3 million for his campaign.
Edwards is concentrating on a strategy that served him well four years ago when he finished a close second in Iowa — bringing out the reliable caucus goers, particularly in rural areas. He’s the only Democratic candidate to have visited all 99 Iowa counties, and the 2004 vice presidential nominee has gotten some key labor support here.
Trailing the front-runners in polling and fundraising, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sens. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd are all banking on a surprise showing in Iowa.
Richardson has sent mail to Iowa voters touting his support of gun rights, while Biden has secured more endorsements from Iowa elected officials than any Democrat except Clinton. Dodd has temporarily moved his family to Iowa to demonstrate his commitment to the state, enrolling his daughter in kindergarten at a Des Moines public school.
NEW HAMPSHIRE — Jan. 8 (22 pledged delegates)
Clinton’s once-commanding lead in New Hampshire has diminished somewhat in recent weeks, but it’s still in the range of 11 to 15 percentage points. Her strategy here is to build a New Hampshire firewall that would withstand an unpredictable outcome in Iowa.
Clinton has traveled to each of New Hampshire’s 10 counties and has secured the backing of most of the Democratic establishment. The campaign has made more than 250,000 phone calls to voters.
Obama has started advertising in New Hampshire and is courting Democrats as well as the independents who can participate in the party’s primary. His campaign stages house-to-house canvassing and phone banks every night and weekend, with 800 people knocking on doors one weekend in November.
“When people begin to decide, we’re going to be at their doors,” said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe.
Edwards is in a distant third place here. He has more than 60 staff on the ground and bought airtime touting his health care plan in commercials that were already airing in Iowa.
Richardson has sent field aides from New Hampshire to Iowa, but brought in some national staff to work here. Dodd, a senator from nearby Connecticut, is counting on his New England roots to help woo New Hampshire voters his way. Biden has a very limited campaign operation here.
MICHIGAN — Jan. 15 (128 pledged delegates, likely to be stripped by the national party)
The parties wanted a state-run primary on Jan. 15, and the Michigan Supreme Court gave the go-ahead this week. It could be irrelevant to the candidates, however. They’ve signed a pledge to skip the state if it goes ahead and holds the contest that early — against the early-primary rules of the national party.
NEVADA — Jan. 19 (25 pledged delegates)
Clinton is far-and-away the leader in Nevada, with double the support of Obama in a recent poll.
The Clinton and Obama campaigns have been working with experienced Iowa caucus organizers, developing a precinct-by-precinct system similar to Iowa’s. Edwards moved staff from Nevada to Iowa over the summer, but recently has added organizers back to his Nevada operation.
The campaigns are awaiting a coveted endorsement expected in early December — that of the 60,000-member Culinary Union, which represents most employees on the Las Vegas strip.
SOUTH CAROLINA — Jan. 26 (45 pledged delegates)
Clinton holds a wide lead in most polls, and the campaign is working to reinforce her position in South Carolina amid an expected strong challenge from Obama. He is running to become the first black president, and blacks make up about 50 percent of Democratic primary voters in the state.
Campaign officials note two major advantages for Clinton in the state: her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and her strength among older voters and women, no matter what skin color. Former President Clinton remains popular among blacks and has campaigned extensively for his wife here.
Obama has been advertising on three-dozen black radio stations across the state — the most recent spot features him talking about growing up without his father.
Edwards, who was born in South Carolina, won the state’s primary in 2004. But he’s been polling a distant third this time. Last week he became the first Democratic presidential candidate to advertise on South Carolina television, touting his roots.
FLORIDA — Jan. 29 (185 delegates, stripped for violating party rules)
Florida falls under the candidates’ pledge not to campaign in states that violate national party rules in scheduling their nominating contests. The state plans to hold its primary a week earlier than allowed.
The candidates have not been holding campaign events in Florida, but still have been aggressively raising money there.
MEGA TUESDAY — Feb. 5 (As many as 25 states, at least 1,370 delegates)
With 370 pledged delegates, California remains the biggest prize. Clinton maintains a wide lead in California polls, and has launched “Hillcorps,” an extensive volunteer outreach effort. Obama is holding “Camp Obama” training for volunteer organizers in California and in other Feb. 5 states, such as Georgia, Missouri, Alabama and Illinois, his home state.
Clinton is expected to cruise in her home state of New York and neighboring New Jersey. Besides the large delegate states, Obama’s campaign is focusing on caucus states like Colorado and Minnesota, where local organizations are necessary for victory.
Edwards does not have staff in Feb. 5 states, banking that a win in Iowa can propel him to victory elsewhere, particularly Southern states such as Arkansas and his home state of North Carolina.
Richardson is counting on strong support in New Mexico and other Western states, including Colorado, Arizona and Wyoming. But he’ll have to beat expectations elsewhere to make it that far.