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Will it be Obama or Hillary for the Dems?

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Like P&J and their peers at Brown, Rhode Island College students really like Obama.

But as Steven Stark writes this week in the Phoenix, Hillary will be tough to beat if she claims New Hampshire.

Clinton currently holds about a 20-point lead in most national polls, which should give her some security. After all, one has to go back to 1972, when George McGovern bested early leader Edmund Muskie, to find a race in which a front-runner blew such a large lead going into the primaries. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen again. But it does mean, despite Clinton’s well-publicized recent travails — specifically her sub-par debate performance in late October and some narrowing opinion polls in Iowa and New Hampshire — that it’s unlikely.

Clinton does, however, have two Achilles’s heels. The first is that an unusually large number of voters just don’t like her, raising the possibility that, if an opponent could galvanize all the anti-Clinton voters on his behalf, he might have a chance of upsetting her.

The second is that, if she had to rank all 50 states in which she’d like to be tested first, Clinton would probably put Iowa last. There’s a bit of a culture clash between New York, Clinton’s designated home, and Iowa — which is one reason Rudy Giuliani has, by and large, stayed away from the Hawkeye State. Clinton’s husband didn’t even run there in 1992, conceding Iowa to favorite son Tom Harkin, so she has had to build her organization from scratch. And Barack Obama is a senator from a neighboring state, which, on paper at least, should be a huge advantage — even though the press seldom mentions it. (Although Clinton grew up in Illinois, it’s not the same as representing it in an elected national body.)

Most important, Iowa is not a primary contest but a caucus state, so level of participation is far lower than in an ordinary primary. That’s bad news for Clinton, since her voters tend to be poorer than Obama’s more upper-middle-class constituency and, historically, poorer voters don’t vote in as great numbers. All things being equal, her voters in Iowa are simply less likely to turn out.

In truth, however, should Clinton lose that state, it’s not at all clear that she would then go on to lose New Hampshire five days later. There’s a long history of candidates losing Iowa and coming back to win New Hampshire — such as Ronald Reagan against George Bush the elder in 1980.

And New Hampshire is, after all, a primary state where Clinton should do better — though the participation of independents in that Democratic primary could skew that, since she polls better among registered Democrats.

But as long as Clinton wins New Hampshire, she is likely to remain the front-runner and go on to win South Carolina on January 26 and wrap up the nomination on Super Tuesday 10 days later. Conversely, both Obama and John Edwards must finish ahead of Clinton in Iowa to remain viable. And they probably have to win one of the other two big January contests, too, in order to seriously challenge the front-runner. Again, it’s not impossible. But it won’t be easy.

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