Ready or Reeling, Campaigns Prepare to Caucus

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For Bernie Sanders' so-called revolution, the curtain is about to rise.Photo: JIM WATSON

DES MOINES — It’s a relatively warm if occasionally wet day in Iowa, though a winter storm could be bearing down on the western part of the state when the Caucuses start up at 7:00 p.m. tomorrow. (Many of us Caucus-watchers are getting nervous about our Tuesday flights!)

But Winter Storm Selzer has already come and gone with the release of the final Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll from Selzer and Company which showed Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as the likely winners tomorrow night. The poll offered particularly bad news for Republicans Marco Rubio — whose supposed big “surge” was not detected by Selzer — and the six once-formidable candidates (Christie, Bush, Fiorina, Kasich, Huckabee and Santorum) who were in the low single-digits. It also made it pretty clear that Bernie Sanders needs to kick out the jams in getting first-time caucus-goers out, because Clinton’s lead looks solid among the most likely participants.

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Inside a Clinton campaign office in West Burlington, Iowa.Photo: MICHAEL B. THOMAS

Today most of the candidates are out and around the state — mostly in the Quad Cities or Cedar Rapids to the East of Des Moines, and Sioux City and Council Bluff to the west — though Clinton, Sanders and Cruz all wind up in or near the capital tonight for final pre-caucus events. For those with something to win or lose tomorrow, it’s all about firing up volunteers and fine-tuning organization at this point. For the also-rans, it’s a matter of gritting one’s teeth and getting through the final huzzahs before quickly moving on to New Hampshire or (most likely for Huckabee and Santorum) getting out of the race altogether.

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"All in" might not nearly be enough for Jeb.Photo: Joshua Lott/2016 Getty Images

The Democratic race is close enough that there’s considerable suspense about the results. A Clinton win would likely squelch all the recent buzz about Sanders and the lip-licking anticipation among Republicans and media types alike that he might win the first two states and send Team Hillary into a 2008-style tailspin. Sanders would likely still be favored in New Hampshire, where he’s been leading by double-digits in recent polls, but the pressure would shift to his camp. A Sanders upset in Iowa would put the race right back where it was a couple of weeks ago, with Bernie fans looking for signs of post-New Hampshire momentum but otherwise feeling fine.

On the Republican side, there are two conflicting dynamics: Cruz’s highly reputed get-out-the-vote organization versus Trump supporters’ enthusiasm; and the leakage in Cruz’s zeppelin in recent days as he’s been pounded by everyone in sight, culminating in a very shaky debate performance Thursday night. Many establishment Republicans are hoping for a third dynamic: a last-minute burst for Rubio that was not detected by Selzer.

The good news for Rubio (even if the “surge” does not materialize) is that he is likely to finish far, far ahead of his rivals in the so-called “Establishment Republican Lane”: Kasich, Bush and Christie. So if anyone gets a “bump” going into New Hampshire, it’s Marco, and Cruz’s late struggles in Iowa could give Rubio a boost as well.

But putting aside all the speculation about the standing of this or that Republican candidate, the big question coming out of Iowa (assuming the order of finish is what Selzer projected) is exactly where and how Donald Trump is going to lose. Iowa was generally considered his worst state until recently. He’s leading in the polls in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, and in all the March 1 states (with the exception of the Minnesota caucus) and March 15 states with recent polling, including Rubio’s Florida and Kasich’s Ohio. The idea of, say, Rubio prevailing late in a one-on-one competition with Trump requires a clearing-out of the “Establishment Lane” very soon, and a Rubio victory in his own state on March 15. These are becoming dicey propositions. Establishment Republicans may continue to suffer the agony of trying to decide whether they prefer the self-inflicted gunshot of a Cruz nomination or the poison of Donald Trump.