If you're a careful consumer of the political press, you surely know by now that the short, happy rhapsody of Barack Obama is at an end. His campaign is stalled, outflanked at every turn by Hillary's; his once high-flying supporters are drifting slowly back to Earth; and Hillary Clinton is widening her lead, doing everything right, and poised to run the table after Iowa.
The hitch, of course, is that the nomination process is so heavily dependent on actual people casting actual votes that, come January or February, it could result in a radical reordering of all the things we are now all so sure about.
Four years ago, during the last days of October 2003, Dick Gephardt was leading, if that's the word, Howard Dean by one percentage point, 22-21, in the latest Iowa polls. The burning question at that point was whether Gephardt, the longtime congressman from Missouri, could stop Dean in Iowa and rescue his candidacy. And it was right about then that Gephardt decided to torpedo Dean.
John Kerry, a miserable third with 9 percent, was not, in any practical way, part of the discussion. He was dead, done. John Edwards and Wes Clark were both at 7 percent. Joe Lieberman, in a tier all alone, was at 5 percent.
Despite the dead heat at the top, Dean was clearly the man to beat, and the story was the same in New Hampshire. A Zogby poll in the Granite State had Dean at 40 percent and John Kerry second at 17 percent.
We know who got to have the big party in Boston, so I say all this as a preamble to what should be obvious. Despite the unbreakable lock Hillary Clinton appears to have on the nomination, there are all kinds of ways for her not to win, because the voters, especially those in Iowa, have a habit -- they seem to take pride, really -- of making the political certainties of the these soft October nights look like absurdities in the cold, harsh light of deep winter.
All of which is to say that Barack Obama, for all the talk of his stalled and faltering campaign, still has a chance. There is hope for the politics of hope.
For that to happen, however, someone needs to go after the Clinton juggernaut, and if you're Barack Obama, you're hoping that John Edwards, very soon, decides to chuck whatever caution he has left and go after Hillary the way Gephardt went after Dean in November and December of 2003.
At the end of October 2003, Kerry had not even fired his campaign manager yet. Gephardt, running for a second time and having won Iowa the first time, had pinned all of his hopes on the Hawkeye State. He was in a must-win (read: desperate) situation, and when Dean's insurgent campaign began to overtake him, he went nuclear. It happened right about now in the cycle, so expect someone to go negative on Hillary soon.
Gephardt compared Dean to President Bush, saying that they both held the same position on Social Security. Then he attacked Dean's record as governor of Vermont, charging that he had balanced his state's budget on the backs of the poor.
While these two sparred, Kerry was fending off political death, reading his political obituary in the newspaper every day. In early November, he fired Jim Jordan and brought on Mary Beth Cahill to run the campaign, explaining, "I wanted to change the dynamics. We're moving forward. We're changing the dynamics of the campaign. I wanted to change the dynamics of this race."
Got that? He wanted to change the dynamics of the campaign. The dynamic in need of changing, of course, was that everyone said he was finished and the biggest disappointment of the election season. Kerry had staked his claim in New Hampshire and that was not working out so well for him, and Iowa was a complete disaster.
By late November, Kerry had mortgaged his house and convinced the mysterious -- sometimes magical -- field operative, Michael Whouley to takeover his Iowa campaign. Meanwhile, Gephardt blasted away at Dean, forcing him into open-field combat. Dean did not hold up well, and voters began taking a second look at their front-runner. Six weeks later, John Kerry was the nominee.
Granted, Hillary Clinton is no Howard Dean; she's organized, she's got money, and she's a known commodity. But her relationship with some Democratic voters is a complicated and not always comfortable one. It is way too early to assume that the deal is closed. But Obama, Edwards or anyone else who hopes to topple her, needs to give voters a reason to reassess. They still have time. The conventional wisdom is that going negative in Iowa hurts rather than helps, but it has to be an option for those who hope to stop the Clinton "juggernaut."
And who knows what the conventional wisdom will look like in three months?