What Happens If Hillary Whiffs in ’08?

082606 article conason What Happens If Hillary  Whiffs in ’08?This much can be said right now about the early 2008 primary and caucus schedule for Senator Hillary Clinton: It looks, as Damon Runyon might have put it, more harrowing than somewhat.

When the Democratic National Committee met in Chicago over the weekend, they approved a calendar that figures to empower four states—voting over a 15-day period in January 2008—to reduce the pack of candidates to no more than two or three, probably with a clear front-runner among them. Iowa, as always, will lead off with its caucuses, followed five days later by caucuses in Nevada. The New Hampshire primary will take place three days after Nevada, and South Carolina will host a primary a week after that.

More than anything, political campaigns are shaped by expectations and momentum, meaning that Hillary for President—a lavishly funded restoration effort begun even before Bill Clinton’s second term expired—will at the very least need to post a win in one of those early contests. And the problem for Hillary is that it’s all too easy to see her coming up short in all of them.

The trouble begins in Iowa, whose finicky caucus-goers practice a defiant brand of cornfield populism that isn’t bowled over by media stars, and that demands from candidates more—much more—than the mushy, November-minded rhetoric that Hillary has so far offered on the Iraq war.

Her Iowa predicament can be summarized in two words: John Edwards.

Consider yourself excused if you haven’t kept tabs on Mr. Edwards since 2004. Now an exiled former Senator based out of Chapel Hill, N.C., he has been toiling under the radar, and the opinion-shaping class in Washington sneers at his prospects. But look for yourself and you’ll find a new Mr. Edwards emerging before your eyes: an unreconstructed, Potomac-phobic crusader for economic justice who has persuasively repented for voting as a Senator to send America to war.

Very quietly, Mr. Edwards’ support has edged up in national polls over the last year—all while his ’04 running mate, John Kerry, has nosedived to single digits—and his message and style seem tailor-made for the Hawkeye State. Startlingly, a Des Moines Register poll in June gave Mr. Edwards the early Iowa lead, 30 percent to Hillary’s 26.

From Iowa, the race will move to Nevada. Sort of. Probably. To protect its primacy, New Hampshire is threatening to move its primary to an earlier date, ahead of Nevada (and Iowa, for that matter). And even if the D.N.C.’s calendar stays intact, it is far from a given that every candidate and media outlet will accord Nevada the same treatment as Iowa and New Hampshire.

But rest assured that Hillary, as a wounded front-runner, would be under the gun there. And Nevada, like Iowa, is not natural turf for her, in part because caucuses—unlike primaries—are dominated by true believers and ideologues. Mr. Edwards, especially if he’s riding a wave of post-Iowa “Big Mo,” would be formidable, armed with a message that matches the state’s demographics. Add to the mix the pull of regional and ethnic pride that would bolster Bill Richardson, the governor of nearby New Mexico and the son of a Mexican immigrant, and Hillary could well find herself in a Silver State pickle.

The third state in the ’08 line-up, New Hampshire, seems the most promising for Hillary. After all, it was the Granite State—or, more precisely, the skillful spinning of media-savvy Clintonistas—that transformed Bill Clinton into the Comeback Kid 14 years ago, when it was decreed that his seven-point loss to Paul Tsongas represented a moral victory for the ages.

But that ignores the fallout she’d suffer from losing Iowa and Nevada. Recall that as 2004 began, Howard Dean was treated as the de facto Democratic nominee, a cash-flushed insurgent poised to run the table through the primary season. But then he finished third in Iowa—and failed to win a single primary (besides Vermont). Voters shun dying campaigns: How would Hillary look if she limps into New Hampshire?

And if she can’t string it together in any of the first three states, you needn’t waste any breath wondering about the fourth, South Carolina. Tellingly, Harold Ickes, a top Clinton family booster, has already launched a P.R. push to discredit the Palmetto State’s ’08 primary, arguing that the playing field there is slanted in favor of Mr. Edwards, a South Carolinian by birth. It’s an altogether specious assertion—Mr. Edwards’ roots are in North Carolina—that suggests the Clinton forces are already looking to steal a page from their ’92 playbook.

After all, if Hillary can lower the bar enough in the early states, she could be in position to declare victory without actually winning. Just like the Comeback Kid.