All eyes on Iowa -- to what effect?

With the outcome seeming too close to call, particularly on the Democratic side, tomorrow's Iowa caucuses may be decidely inconclusive. The New York Times yesterday took up this subject:

In truth, amid all the endless permutations of outcomes that are being discussed — can Mrs. Clinton, the putative front-runner, survive a third-place finish, or Mr. Edwards a second-place one? — aides are beginning to grapple with the frustrating possibility that all the time, money and political skill invested here might prove to be for naught when it comes to identifying the candidate to beat in the primaries and winnowing the top tier.

“It would be like a six-month trial and a hung jury,” said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama. “I think it is really possible.”

Rather than clarify the state of play and consolidate this crowded field a bit, an outcome like that would almost certainly muddle things further and potentially extend the time before Democrats know their nominee.

For different reasons, Iowa is not likely to determine much for the Republicans, either. Only Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, are going all-out here, and whatever happens between them, the Republican race already seems likely to go on at least until the cavalcade of primaries across the country on Feb. 5.

But for the leading Democrats, an inconclusive ending here would be a much more complicated result.

Because none of them would be judged a decisive loser, Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Obama would all be able to go on to the New Hampshire primary next week, no questions asked. And you can bet on this: the other Democrats in the race — Senators Christopher J. Dodd and Joseph R. Biden Jr., Representative Dennis J. Kucinich and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico — would feel less of the morning-after-Iowa pressure to pull out.

It would be hard for any candidate to play the “I beat expectations” game and claim some sort of chimerical victory, much the way Bill Clinton proclaimed himself the winner after coming in second in New Hampshire in 1992 — although Mr. Edwards, who for much of the year campaigned in the shadow of his two rivals, would no doubt try.

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