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The Intersection of Money and Strategy

I didn't write much this last week about the second-quarter fundraising reports for presidential candidates, figuring the story was being obsessively covered elsewhere. The news that John McCain now has less cash-on-hand than Ron Paul did put an exclamation point on the terminal diagnosis of his candidacy which has been apparent for some time. And like just about everyone, I agree that the overall Democratic advantage in fundraising is significant, if not dispositive.

But there's an interesting buzz on the Democratic side about the possibility that the huge Clinton/Obama money advantage over the rest of the field may spell doom for their rivals, most specifically John Edwards, whose status as one of the Big Three of Democratic candidates is increasingly being questioned, partly because of the money problem, and partly because his poll standings are lagging everywhere but in Iowa.

Over at The New Republic Online, John Judis made the case that Edwards, even if he wins Iowa, may not be able to duplicate the Iowa-driven Kerry miracle of 2004 because of the compressed primary schedule, which would not give him time to raise enough cash to compete in the vast array of big-state contests on February 5. At The Plank, Jason Zengerle, a notably Edwards-friendly writer, wondered if the whole Iowa-centric strategy of that campaign was a mistake.

To deal with the last point first, I can't imagine why John Edwards would not want to focus on Iowa. He entered the 2008 cycle leading almost every poll in Iowa, with a strong and well-nourished organization already in place. Doing anything other than trying to build on that advantage would have been nuts, particularly since Iowa represents a landscape in which his rivals' money would not necessarily translate into Caucus attendance.

Judis' argument about the differences in the 2004 and 2008 calendars is clearly right, but let's remember a couple of peculiarities of the 2004 dynamics. The meltdown of the Dean campaign post-Iowa was attributable to the catastrophic outcome in Iowa, and to the huge media exaggeration of The Scream--but also to the revelation that Dean's significant money advantage had vanished thanks to promiscuous spending on organization and media in states well down the road. As it turned out, Kerry's Iowa bounce, which produced a decisive NH bounce, not only enabled JK to raise money, but also wiped out the impact of earlier Dean spending in a variety of states. It's not clear to me that a compressed primary schedule in 2004 would have changed the ultimate outcome at all. If anything, the "pause" after NH gave two other rivals, Edwards and Clark, a slim but definite chance to overcome the Iowa-NH bounce for Kerry.

The real and unanswerable question for 2008, particularly if Edwards or even someone further down in the field wins or places early, is the size of the impact of Iowa and New Hampshire on the immediate landscape of later states. And we've not even begun to assess whether HRC and Obama are wisely investing their vast hauls over the primary calendar.

To mention just one strategic dilemma: how does HRC approach Iowa? She clearly needs to beat Obama there. And given her overall investment in an "inevitability" campaign, she might be tempted to throw everything into an effort to win outright, thereby croaking Edwards. But that would run the risk of making Obama the clear and unified anti-HRC candidate in later caucuses and primaries.

In the end, John Edwards has no choice but to go for Iowa, and try to create a domino effect that neutralizes his rivals' poll and money advantages, with the additional hope that they focus on each other and spend too much early money on states where the Iowa-New Hampshire bounce might overwhelm every other factor. It's the other candidates, I suspect, who really need to make some perilous decisions about the intersectiom of money and strategy in this campaign.