Fineman: The Megastates Gamble

Ever since Babe Ruth, New Yorkers have loved the long ball. The 2008 campaign is no exception. The front runners, Sen. Hillary Clinton and former mayor Rudy Giuliani, hope to win their party's nomination with walk-off home runs in megastates. That way, they think, they can avoid being picked off by their respective party's most active—and controversial—grassroots players.

For Hillary, the idea is not to let antiwar activists corner her in Iowa and New Hampshire; for Rudy, the goal is to avoid humiliation at the hands of pro-life activists. More generally, these New Yorkers want to run as close to the political center as they can. It's a very sensible goal, of course—if they can get away with it.

All the other candidates in both parties are, to one degree or another, pursuing the opposite strategy: looking to play "small ball," scratching out singles in the early-inning states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

As it is now coalescing, the 2008 primary season makes the Big Bang sound like a burp. Among the Beltway's armchair generals, the question is whether a national primary day next Feb. 5 (with California and New York among the many states voting) makes those early-inning contests more or less important. "We've never had this kind of schedule before," said Ed Gillespie, the former Republican Party chairman. "Do you magnify or diminish the importance of those early contests? I really don't know the answer. Nobody does."

Like all religious disputes, this one is a matter of faith and emotion, not pure logic. And it's a matter of emphasis: even Hillary and Rudy can't (and won't) thumb their noses at any state over the long haul. But you can see two contrasting strategies emerging, and the one Hillary and Rudy are pursuing is now clear: they have been among those most actively encouraging megastates such as New York, California and Florida to move up their primary dates.

If you've got access to big money and the national fame (and both do), why not?

Rudy has a keen interest in diminishing the role of Iowa, and perhaps the other early states. Having decided to forthrightly restate his political support for a woman's legal right to choose an abortion, the risk in Iowa is simply too high. He may find reasons to skip participation in the first big straw poll there, this August. "It's by no means impossible for him to win the nomination with his position on abortion," said one GOP operative, who requested anonymity discussing Rudy's fortunes. "But the question is, in a post-9/11 world, can he find pro-lifers who won't make that one issue their main test?"

Iowa is not a great place for Giuliani to test that theory. The GOP caucuses there in recent decades have been heavily influenced by—if not outright controlled by—conservative, evangelical, pro-life Christian activists.

Hillary and her advisors have a similar fear of the Iowa caucuses, and New Hampshire, for that matter. Antiwar sentiment is particularly strong among Democrats in both places; Democrats in both states have a long history of using their roles in the nomination process to send grass-roots messages. New Hampshire has a rich history of war protest, of course. In I968, Sen. Eugene McCarthy did well enough in the primary there (fueled by a student-led grass-roots movement) to convince President Lyndon Johnson not to seek re-election. In 1972 Sen. George McGovern essentially won the Democratic nomination by winning New Hampshire—in one of the great upsets in of the modern political age.

As for Iowa, it doesn't have a single military installation; the real action in the caucuses there is likely to be a furious bidding war for the antiwar vote. It's a contest Hillary may not want to get into—and may well try to avoid.

Then there is "small ball" strategy. Mitt Romney is a good example of a candidate taking that tack—albeit a special one, because he can spend tens of millions of his own money.

The former Massachusetts governor needs Iowa—desperately—and is focusing on it intently. His goal there: to prove his bona fides among conservative, evangelical and anti-abortion Christians (Protestants for the most part, but Catholics as well, in cities such as Dubuque). He starts with three strikes against him: Mormonism, Massachusetts-ism and a suspiciously recent conversion to pro-lifeism.  He needs a victory in the GOP Iowa caucuses.

If he can get it, he can win in New Hampshire, where he is doing reasonably well in the polls. In his case, the first states are magnified in importance—but he has to win.

Eight years ago, Sen. John McCain skipped Iowa. One of the many ironies of his second run is that he can't afford to do the same thing this time around.

From neighboring Illinois, Sen. Barack Obama—a man who knows his way around an ethanol plant—has the blessing and burden of high expectations in Iowa. He planted his flag there very early: his first campaign hire was an Iowa specialist, and he has made more public campaign trips there than to any other state.

Former Sen. John Edwards has followed a similar course in Iowa—where he maintains strong ties from his 2004 run—and in his native state of South Carolina. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is placing a parallel emphasis on Nevada, with its heavily Hispanic constituency.

It's an odd moment in American political history, but perhaps one we should have expected after 9/11. New York, and New Yorkers: that's where the action is. The Yankee hats are in fashion. So, too, is the Yankee theory of how to play the game.