From the Washington Post:

"The top three Democratic presidential contenders remain locked in a close battle in Iowa, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) seeing her advantages diminish on key issues, including the questions of experience and which candidate is best prepared to handle the war in Iraq, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News Poll."

The Latest in Iowa:
Obama 30
Clinton 26
John Edwards 22
Bill Richardson 11

What does it mean?

First a few things to keep in mind:

Iowa has always been an obstacle for Hillary. So much so that she even considered bypassing the caucus; as a result, she was late in committing to contest Iowa. Why? Bill did not run a campaign in Iowa back in 1992 because Tom Harkin was running for president, so the exceptionally talented Clinton brain trust lacks experience in the Hawkeye State. The Edwards campaign, on the other hand, ran strong there in 2004 and opened the 2008 contest with a significant organizational advantage. Exciting newcomer, Barack Obama, hails from a neighboring state.

Perhaps more problematic, the polling data suggests a personal distaste for the candidate. Iowans question her honesty, perceiving her as guarded and calculating. For some anecdotal evidence from the Bosque Boys archives, you can review the Okie Gardener's on-the-ground reporting from Iowa early this summer (within a conversation we had back then) here. In a nutshell: Iowa is not a good fit for the Clinton candidacy. Iowans seem especially unimpressed, suspicious, and unfriendly to her personally.

Something Technical. There is always a lag time in polling. Any sampling represents merely a snapshot of opinion from a certain period, in this instance, November 14-18. It is reasonable to surmise that Hillary's poor debate performance two weeks ago and her subsequent scramble influenced that data, while her comeback performance in Las Vegas had little impact on the poll. So, for the next week, we are going to be talking about what 500 Iowans thought last week. In the back and forth of a year-long presidential nominating campaign, one set of those numbers is not especially significant.

The Real Danger for Clinton

Having said that, while the poll reflects merely a tiny ripple, the real import of the poll will be in how much it accelerates a potentially hazardous trend. Hillary Clinton is at risk while this storyline dominates the news cycle. Nothing has changed in real terms--but her campaign is in danger as long as the interested public consciousness perceives a contest in flux or, even worse, a momentum shift.

What does all this mean nationally?

To reiterate, not much has changed. Candidate Clinton can overcome a modest loss in Iowa, because she has the best organization. She is prepared to compete in every state primary following Iowa. Of course, a win in Iowa would be huge for her. A win would come very close to clinching her aura of inevitability and set in motion all the elements needed for a landslide victory.

This poll is another installment of the same sobering story for John Edwards. Iowa is make or break for him. If John Edwards does not win Iowa, he is finished. He is not gaining ground. To a lesser extent, this poll is bad news for Bill Richardson as well, who remains flat. He broke 10 percent in late summer, but he seems stuck there.

The poll is obviously good news for Barack Obama, who has proven himself a dynamic campaigner in Iowa. His performance there has confirmed the notion that he is a real political force on the national level. A win in Iowa gives him a real boost and makes him the only alternative to Hillary in the ensuing contests.

However, if the Illinois senator, a favorite son from a neighboring state does not win in Iowa, he will be damaged. He will still have plenty of money with which to dust himself off, get back in the race, and go on to New Hampshire--but he will need to draw an inside straight from there to pull out the nomination.

For more on Obama's dilemma, my post from last week: The Power of Obama is palpable, but, then again, he is no Jack Kennedy.


I will recycle this old one, quoting myself from July (full previous post here):

"Right now Mrs. Clinton holds a comfortable lead. Most likely, Obama will continue to rise in the polls until he is even with Clinton, possibly even surpass Clinton, and then peak. These will be tense moments. Both camps will develop a deep dislike for the other. Then Mrs. Clinton's experience and superior organization will take over, the adults in the Democratic Party will exert their influence, Clinton will pull back ahead of Obama, and then pull away from him down the stretch. Then Mrs. Clinton will extend a gracious hand of friendship to Obama and offer him the VP. Obama will seize the opportunity to further his political education and prepare for his ultimate elevation to the Chief Executive. And they both shall live happily ever after.

"On the other hand, so much can go wrong. If Obama catches fire, and wins the nomination (still an entirely plausible potential outcome), all bets are off. Obama is the one viable candidate of inexperience."

As Tom Patterson likes to say, "I wouldn't bet my house on anything right now," but, even with that hedge, Mrs. Clinton's organization is going to be very difficult to beat. One thing is certain: it is definitely "crunch" time; the long pre-campaign season is quickly drawing to a close, and it is "now or never" for this whole slate of candidates.

UPDATE: The Bosque Boys welcome Slate readers. Thanks to Laurel Wamsley for noticing us in her "Today's Blogs: The Latest Chatter in Cyberspace" column.