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Editorial: Ca-ca-ca-caucus

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The staid state of Iowa proved itself capable of surprise last week when Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee rose to the top of their respective parties.

But as anyone, particularly anyone who is unhappy with these results, will tell you, Iowa has a terrible track record for picking close presidential elections.

Since 1972, they’ll say, it’s really happened only once – when Bush won the caucus over Steve Forbes in 2000. Not even Bill Clinton won in Iowa his first time through.

But Jimmy Carter won in 1976 by default – most Democrats were “uncommitted” that year – and took it outright in 1980. And the Iowa caucus results have been in line with the candidacies of Bob Dole, John Kerry, Al Gore, Walter Mondale and Gerald Ford. If the Iowa caucus were a baseball player, its batting average would be .611, taking into account unopposed incumbencies.

So while the Iowa caucus doesn’t mean everything, it certainly means something, especially in a year that saw record turnout on both sides of the aisle (with huge numbers for the Democrats), an outspent former preacher take the Republican nomination and an underdog with serious momentum (and the backing of Oprah Winfrey) inarguably overcoming a longtime favorite.

There are about 3 million people in this state, 24 percent college educated, with an economic base in agriculture and manufacturing and a solid middle class. The median price of a home is about $113,000. And in many ways the state of Iowa mirrors much of the rest of the country – save for the fact that it’s 93 percent white.

A peek into this year’s Iowa caucus on C-Span in real time last week revealed legions of bespectacled white people gathering in shifting numbers in corners of high school gymnasiums. It seemed arcane and silly at times, particularly on the Democratic side of the slate where the process has the feel and cadence of a parlor game that corn farmers like to play, but the results were for real.

This caucus carries weight primarily because it happens early in the election cycle, providing the first hard numbers the flacks and wonks and hacks get to chew on during this long haul.

We think it’s still too early to pin our endorsement on any candidate, though indeed the clock is ticking, but it’s not too early to speculate on possible matchups and probable outcomes, kind of like they do during playoff season in the NFL.

A possible Obama/Huckabee contest is an intriguing prospect. Obama has proven an able speaker and debater, and he’s got enough deep pockets and star power behind him to carry him through a long campaign. He will also seduce some disillusioned Republicans no longer willing to put their political faith in a religious man. Huckabee, though, can pull votes form the left with charisma and compassion.

Give Huckabee a spread of six or eight percentage points, and this one would be a handicapper’s dream.

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