"America is still ready for a white male!" an overcaffeinated, white female Iowan shouted at me after a Joe Biden event in Mason City, Iowa, last week. There was nothing racist or sexist in her tone, merely zealous support for her man and the firm conviction that a pale male is still the Democrats' best bet to recapture the White House. For months, the strongest white boy in the campaign has been John Edwards, who started organizing in Iowa in 2003 and never stopped. Edwards may yet prevail; Iowa is once again as fluid as ethanol. But if he doesn't win the Jan. 3 caucuses—he's been steadily losing altitude since early summer—he says he'll drop out. That might leave a two-person race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but I doubt it.
Obama is dealing the hot hand in Iowa right now. Caucus-goers pay less attention to debates in far-off places than to events at home. The pivotal Nov. 10 Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner (the same event where John Kerry got his mojo in 2004) brought 9,000 screaming Democrats to Des Moines in a test of organizational strength won handily by Obama. Then he salvaged the otherwise stupefying evening with an inspirational closing speech in which he addressed why he doesn't want to wait a few years by invoking what Martin Luther King Jr. called "the fierce urgency of now."
If Clinton wasn't worried about Obama in Iowa, she wouldn't be bashing him every chance she gets. Should she lose there, the door might open for a second-tier candidate to get competitive. You think I'm crazy? That's what they said when I wrote about Mike Huckabee in August.
If Clinton and Obama were arguing about anything other than experience, it wouldn't be possible for Biden, Chris Dodd or Bill Richardson to get the slightest traction, even with a better-than-expected finish. But by staking her claim on her preparation for the White House, Clinton has kicked off a fuller discussion on what constitutes real qualifications. Experience usually counts for nothing in presidential politics (remember graybeards like Scoop Jackson, Richard Lugar and Dick Gephardt going nowhere?), but this time a "double E" candidate—experience and electability—could at least become a factor.
After Iowa, the surviving white guy in a shrunken field will get a chance to stress his record, especially when the usual "buyers' remorse" sets in about the front runner. On foreign policy, Biden persuaded a reluctant President Clinton to intervene militarily in Bosnia, which saved thousands of lives at little cost. Dodd authored the Central American peace plan in the 1980s that won a Nobel Prize for Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. Richardson struck advantageous deals with dictators on behalf of the Clinton administration. By contrast, Hillary negotiated nothing and was present at no major meetings on foreign policy and national security after 1994. She reviewed some presidential speeches (including the one announcing the bombing of terrorist camps crafted in an awkward husband-and-wife session on Martha's Vineyard just after President Clinton confessed to the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998), gave an important address at a Beijing conference on women and traveled to 80 countries as a good-will ambassador. But these contributions are more reminiscent of Eleanor Roosevelt than, say, Al Gore.
On domestic policy, Hillary was essentially sidelined after her disastrous 1994 health-care plan. The State Children's Health Insurance Program she touts was actually something the Clinton administration stalled on until pressured by Ted Kennedy and Dodd, who also led the seven-year fight for the Family and Medical Leave Act. The Clinton crime bill that included 100,000 new cops was Biden's legislation, and Bob Rubin, while now endorsing Hillary, grumbled about her judgment and never let her in on economic policy when he was Treasury secretary. Clinton was still the most influential First Lady in history, and she has a lot more familiarity with the upper reaches of government than Obama. But if her inevitability is destroyed in Iowa, her "experience" might not be much help.
Second-tier candidates often get a second wind. Jerry Brown beat Jimmy Carter in a slew of late primaries in 1976, and threw a little scare into Bill Clinton by winning Connecticut in 1992. The most plausible long shot this time is Biden, who has done well (and controlled his mouth) in recent debates and generated a trace of "Joe Mo" in Dubuque and a few other pockets in Iowa. His problem is organization. Dodd has twice as many paid staffers on the ground as Biden, though he hasn't connected as well on the stump. Richardson's recent TV ads didn't light a fuse. But should one of them score in the Dec. 13 Des Moines Register debate (or, better yet, win the paper's endorsement), he could break the 15 percent "viability" threshold in enough caucuses to stay in the race.
Voters usually prefer youth and energy to wisdom and experience. Every Democratic president since James Buchanan has taken office by 60, with all but two 55 or younger. Obama at 46 is closer to the norm than Biden at 65, Dodd at 63 or Richardson and Clinton at 60. The latter resemble seasoned senators Stuart Symington, Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson, who lost the 1960 primaries to a lightly regarded 42-year-old colleague named John F. Kennedy. But should Iowa yield a surging Obama and a wounded Clinton, voters will likely give a second look to someone else.