- - Wednesday, February 3, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Iowa isn’t about actually winning, but persuading the political correspondents and prospective voters in the states following to think they see a winner. It’s not even about delegates won, or the order in which a candidate finishes, but whether the result can be spun as a victory.

The importance of being earnest can’t be easily overestimated. The winner gets the precious bump in the primary following. That’s because most voters are not junkies and turn their attention to politics, and the races they should be interested in, only when they must. Voters in New Hampshire this week must turn their attention from the weather, their jobs and their families, to take a closer look at the candidates, and focus on a very different world than the world of only a week before.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign understood that when she stepped up to celebrate a victory she had not won (and perhaps never will). She was on national television early Monday to declare victory, not saying anything about the margin that was so close that her triumph was at the mercy of a few tosses of a coin. The glitter of the victory, such as it was, was tarnished for 15 minutes when the party had to say that there were “irregularities” in counting and reporting the results. Never mind. Stuff happens.

Hillary’s critics have been busy trying to blunt the effects of the Iowa vote, suggesting that they be allowed to see the actual numbers. That’s not likely to happen, and it probably doesn’t even matter much. The dropouts — Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum prominent among them — bowed to the inevitable and more will soon follow. The caravan has moved on. Bernie Sanders, riding high now and spinning his tie with Hillary Clinton as a victory, would do well to remember that nothing recedes like success. Iowa voters went to bed on caucus night four years ago thinking that Mitt Romney had won in Iowa, and woke up to see that Rick Santorum had won by 34 votes, but being declared the winner when voters have moved on means little.

On the Republican side, Donald Trump had set his expectations so high that he almost had to lose, and did. Chutzpah alone cost him a vote or two. He had called Iowans “stupid” and declined to participate in the final debate because he doesn’t like Megyn Kelly, one of the Fox News panelists. When the sun came up the next day he could only question the legitimacy of the Cruz victory.

Mr. Cruz seemed unprepared to effectively manage his victory for maximum impact down the road, something that Marco Rubio, who finished third, accomplished with skill and finesse. In the hours after the debate he acted like the winner, the unexpected king of the spin room, and moved on to New Hampshire with a dazzled media trailing in his wake.

We’ll soon see whether Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are latter day versions of Mike Huckabee and Dick Gephardt, post-caucus flameouts, or whether they can spin what happened Monday in Iowa into a string of victories leading to the White House.

Iowa and New Hampshire are small and very different states, but they combine to give candidates with few resources and poor name recognition an opportunity to break through to the big time. Some capitalize on an early victory and others don’t. Making a silk purse from a sow’s ear is a talent not given to everyone.

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