- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 2, 2007

Iowa stands out in the crowded marathon for the Democratic presidential nomination because it is the only early-contest state where Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York isn’t a clear front-runner.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has held the lead there for nearly a year, boosted by an army of antiwar activists drawn by his opposition to the Iraq war, helped by his strong second-place showing in the 2004 Iowa presidential caucuses and nurtured with nonstop campaign appearances in the state.

Mrs. Clinton holds substantial leads over her Democratic competitors in the January primary states of New Hampshire (12.3 percent), South Carolina (6.7 percent) and Florida (18.2 percent).

But she slightly trails Mr. Edwards in Iowa, which has scheduled its first-in-the-nation caucuses for Jan. 14 and likely will give its winner momentum in the contests to follow. Real Clear Politics’ average of the five most recent Iowa polls of likely caucus voters, though Mrs. Clinton leads in two of them, gives Mr. Edwards a three-point advantage over Mrs. Clinton, at a 27 percent average to her 24 percent. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois averages 20 percent.

Democratic campaign strategists acknowledged her strength at this point in the race, but said that a defeat in the Iowa caucuses could undermine her candidacy at a critical time in the early delegate-selection battles.

“If you are not ahead in Iowa, you are not the front-runner. Somebody can always stumble. Hillary has a lot of institutional advantages and a strong name ID, but the race is still wide open,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the activist New Democrat Network.

Iowa Democrats said the Iraq war is the overriding issue in their state that will determine who wins the opening round of a heavyweight bout where Mrs. Clinton’s early support for the war has undercut her candidacy with her party’s combative antiwar base.

Last month, as part of a gradual effort to reposition herself as a war opponent, she broke with her party leadership, as did Mr. Obama, and voted against the war-making funds because the legislation did not contain troop-withdrawal provisions that President Bush opposed.

“The No. 1 issue is Iraq and, in talking to Democrats out here, they’re not happy that we didn’t have a timetable [in the funding bill sent to Mr. Bush] to get our troops out of Iraq. That’s what I’m hearing,” said Rob Tully, a former Democratic state chairman, who is supporting Mr. Edwards.

“I think it’s a smart move by anyone to vote ‘no’ on that bill. A majority of the country wants us out of there. Whether it is done for political reasons or for the country, it sends a very strong message. I think it’s certainly going to help Edwards, and it will help Hillary, as well as Obama,” Mr. Tully said.

But whether Mrs. Clinton’s ‘no’ vote will help her overtake Mr. Edwards in Iowa and strengthen her bid for the nomination remains a problem because, more often than not, her positions on the war have seemed politically calculated, some Democrats said.

“I actually think that ‘no’ vote could help her on the war issue because she has projected policy calculation on it,” Democratic strategist David Sirota said.

“She has tried to thread an unthreadable needle by first saying, ‘I voted for the war, but I’m now critical of the war. I’m not going to say it’s a mistake, but I’m not going to vote for a blank check.’ There’s no ideology there. It does not seem like a policy path that is governed by principle,” Mr. Sirota said of the senator’s evolving positions on the war.

Her “no” vote on the troop-funding bill has been sharply criticized by the Republican presidential contenders and is one of the targets of a Republican National Committee radio ad that ran this past weekend on Boston and New Hampshire radio stations in advance of the Democratic debate in the first primary state.

“Last month, Hillary Clinton said, ‘of course’ she would fund our troops … Why the sudden about-face? Is politics more important than our troops in harm’s way?” the ad said.

But Democrats dismiss the possibility such attacks on Mrs. Clinton or the other candidates about the war vote would have much effect on the race.

“A lot of Democratic presidential candidates are taking a harder line on the war in Iraq than our party’s congressional leaders,” said former New Mexico Democratic Chairman John Wertheim. “One of the reasons is that mainstream Democratic voters are firmly in the camp of trying to push hard on some sort of troop withdrawal.”

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