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Shifting expectations game for '08

The Iowa caucuses are now clearly up for grabs on the Democratic side, among three top candidates.

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When news broke this week that a major poll put Sen. Barack Obama four points ahead of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in Iowa, the political world stopped and took notice.

Here was confirmation that the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, the first nominating contest in the 2008 presidential elections, are indeed up for grabs – and that the clear Democratic front-runner in national polls, Senator Clinton, is far from a sure thing in the crucial first race. The Washington Post/ABC News poll of 500 likely Iowa caucusgoers also put former Sen. John Edwards within striking distance, four points behind Clinton. In short, factoring in the 4.5-point margin of error, Iowa is a three-way statistical dead heat.

Other data in the poll provided warning signs to Clinton. Iowa voters are demonstrating growing interest in a candidate who provides a "new direction and new ideas" over strength and experience, and Senator Obama wins handily among those voters.

But for Clinton, there's a bit of a silver lining in the news: Because she is not the clear favorite in Iowa, she does not face an expectation that she will win. And if she pulls out a victory, that's big news.

On the Republican side, former Gov. Mitt Romney has led the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first primary state, for months – and thus he is expected to win both. If he does, it's important but not earth-shattering. If he loses one or both, the earth shakes.

"That's the key: Whatever expectations are, you always want to do better than expected," says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

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