One year to Iowa Caucuses, ISU profs assess evolving presidential field

AMES, Iowa -- With just under a year until next January's Iowa Caucuses, the field of presidential candidates continues to grow in both number and intrigue. Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton made the biggest news last week by announcing their plans to run on the Democratic side, while Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas is the latest "unknown" to enter the field.

The national polls suggest Clinton is the favorite among the Democrats, and yet she trails in Iowa and New Hampshire -- possibly because she's avoided visiting those states until she was ready to announce her candidacy. She now has tentative plans to begin campaigning in Iowa Saturday.

"Hillary Clinton is not leading the polls in the state, and so she still has a lot of work to do here in Iowa," said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State and contributor to 11 books on women in politics, including "Anticipating Madam President" (2003). "But I think both Hillary and Barack Obama are creating quite a lot of excitement. And as she announced this past Saturday and plans to be here this Saturday, it shows that she's taking Iowa very seriously."

Edwards' edge

It's been former North Carolina Senator John Edwards -- and not Hillary Clinton -- who has been getting the most face time within the state thus far, and leading the early Iowa polls. His efforts have connected with Iowans.

"John Edwards seemingly lives in Iowa," said University Professor of Political Science Steffen Schmidt, who is the host of "Dr. Politics," a weekly political call-in show on WOI-AM, a National Public Radio affiliate. Monday's show was recorded from the C-Span Campaign 2008 Bus for rebroadcast later this week. "He (Edwards) has not left Iowa (since his last presidential campaign in 2004)."

"Hillary has not been coming forward (in Iowa) and is seen as a little more controversial. She also has not run before (for president)," he said. "Once she comes to Iowa, as she will be this week, she'll have a chance to go to those Democratic activists and let them know why she'd be a good candidate."

While Clinton's announcement came after her likely rivals, timing wasn't as important for her since she has name recognition and financial backing. In fact, Bystrom was surprised she chose to make it official this soon.

"The thing with Hillary Clinton is that she was still getting media buzz without making her official announcement, so the timing of Saturday's announcement was interesting," she said. "My speculation is that she could have held out longer if she had wanted to, because she was already getting exposure. But she's been exploring her options for a while and she may have felt like everything came together right for her to make this announcement Saturday. It kind of upstaged all of those others who announced over the weekend."

"Obama has less money raised than either two candidates (Clinton and Edwards). The other two have just been eying the presidency longer than him," she added. "My guess is that he needed to form an exploratory committee to let it be known that he was serious candidate, not just a media speculation, to generate funding and build organizational strength. He lacks the political connections of the other two."

The growing star-studded Democratic field might actually help former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, according to Schmidt.

"Vilsack is the candidate who could emerge from all the blood and guts and smoke of the caucuses and primaries if the others are all beating each other up," he said. "You never know. There have been others, like Jimmy Carter, who were sort of unknown and not particularly exciting who just fit the ticket. Vilsack's problem is that he doesn't have any foreign policy experience."

Brownback green to presidential race

Brownback is one of the unknowns in the Republican race. For that reason, he needed to announce now, since the campaign season is already underway.

"Nobody knows who he (Brownback) is," said Schmidt. "For him, it's matter of coming to Iowa and getting name recognition and doing the things that Iowa is good for in that area.

"We're already into the actual campaign season since is launching ads against John McCain," he added. "The Republicans have no idea who could win a presidential election in 2008, and the Democrats probably don't either. Everything now is premised by the self-initiatives of the front-runners, who have created some of the buzz themselves. In either party, it's way too early to know what the key issues and concerns will be in 2008."

It may be still too early to know how the 2008 campaign will play out, but Bystrom sees the climate being more favorable for a female candidate, like Clinton. She sites the 2006 election that resulted in record numbers of women serving in the U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, as governors and in state legislatures as well as the rising political prominence of women -- most recently new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi -- as reasons why Clinton could have a shot to make history in 2008.