Inevitable Hillary and the Mondale Express

Mr. Hart looked poised to claim the Democratic nomination. After New Hampshire, he scored a quick follow-up victory in Maine and secured caucus wins in several Western states. Money poured into his coffers. Two weeks later, he had the chance to put Mr. Mondale away on “Super Tuesday,” but a devastating debate moment—Mr. Mondale’s appropriation of the Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” ad slogan to attack Mr. Hart—handed Mr. Mondale narrow, game-saving wins in Georgia and Alabama. Had he won those states, the nomination would have been Mr. Hart’s. Instead, Mr. Mondale used his recovered momentum to post victories in New York and Pennsylvania and then outlasted Mr. Hart to the June finish line.

For all of Hillary’s awe-inspiring strength, it’s not hard to envision a Mondale-like fall just six weeks from now. Obviously, the Gary Hart equivalent will have to be Barack Obama, who has more money, organization and expectations than Mr. Hart did at this point.

To pull it off, Mr. Obama must score a clear victory in Iowa on January 3 (unlike Mr. Hart, who could spin a 32-point defeat into a “win”). If he does that, the resulting momentum will tighten the New Hampshire polls, in which he now trails by somewhere between 10 and 20 points, overnight. The basic profile of Mr. Obama’s New Hampshire supporters matches up with Mr. Hart’s 24 years ago: younger, more educated, more independent, more opposed to war (Iraq now, Lebanon then). Unlike ’84, there will be a competitive G.O.P. primary, but independents are expected to favor the Democratic contest, meaning Mr. Obama stands to receive a boost not unlike the one Mr. Hart got.

In 1984, a year’s worth of conventional wisdom was reversed in just eight days, the time between Iowa and New Hampshire. In 2008, it could happen in just five days, if Mr. Obama can win Iowa and New Hampshire. Then the question will be whether he can do what Gary Hart couldn’t 24 years ago: Finish off the front-runner.