Iowa Caucuses Are Complicated

THE first thing you need to know about the Iowa caucuses if you are a Democrat is that your second preference for president can be just as important as your first.

The Republican caucus is far more straight forward, essentially a straw vote with an immediate winner.

But the Democratic side is more complicated. That's because the caucuses are not winner takes all, as several Iowa Irish Americans explained to this column last weekend.

What happens is that everyone has a first pick, but any candidate who gets less than 15% of the vote is considered non-viable.

That will automatically eliminate Senator Chris Dodd, Congressman Denis Kucinich, and probably Governor Bill Richardson and Senator Joe Biden on the first count, not to mention no-hoper Mike Gravel.

Then there is a second round of voting where delegates from other candidates seek to woo over the now undecided delegates. This is happening in over 1,700 locations across the state, from living rooms to meeting halls, and it is as complicated a process as proportional representation voting is in Ireland where you state your preferences in ascending order.

Even when you have voted for someone by raising your hand you can later change your vote if it is obvious that your candidate, while above 15%, is not viable to win the race.

Trading Votes Possible

THE real fun begins after the first count. It is obvious for even a short visit to Iowa that John Edwards and Senator Barack Obama are a tag team in trying to dislodge Senator Hillary Clinton from the top spot.

That could prove to be critical when the real voting starts. Four years ago Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt were nakedly antagonistic to each other.

That allowed Senator John Kerry to come from way behind by grabbing floating voters from both camps who would not allow themselves to cross over to Gephardt or Dean. In the process Kerry raced to a shock victory, which set him up for the nomination.

This time it is unclear where, say, Edwards' vote would go to, but it is also evident that there is a fair amount of friendly signaling going on between the Edwards and Obama camp.

The general view is that Edwards is slipping and that Obama may be the main beneficiary of his votes. Then there are others who argue that Obama's vote is like Dean's in 2004, largely an illusion because his young supporters are from out of town and even those in Iowa will not show up to vote.

Dodd's Poor Performance

ONE of the most disappointing performers in the Iowa caucuses to date has been Senator Chris Dodd from Connecticut.

He has not caught on, said one party activist. "Even in the Irish Catholic areas such as Dubuque (settled by Irish miners) he just has not managed to get any backing. It is very surprising."

Perhaps not all that surprising, though. At the Jefferson Jackson dinner attended by 9,000 Democrats on Saturday night Dodd was the only one of the six candidates who failed to impress.

Obama gave a magnificent speech, Clinton was excellent, while Richardson, Edwards and Biden all had their moments.

Dodd's speech, for what was the most important event on the Iowa calendar for any presidential aspirant, was truly boilerplate. While others were wowing the crowds, Dodd seemed as if he was speaking from the Senate floor.

Perhaps he's a man of the Senate, which is his problem, and he has left his presidential race too late.

That's a pity because Dodd is one of the most decent and hard working politicians around and a great friend of Ireland.

Sign of The Times

A SIGN of the times perhaps was the post-Jefferson Jackson event that each candidate hosted in downtown Des Moines.

This was the opportunity to rally the troops before the nationally televised dinner, which is the effective kick-off for the party nomination.

Dodd's stand had a man outside holding a banner reading "Free Beer" to try and entice people in. Of course neither Clinton nor Obama needed such help attracting in the crowds.

Obama's rally at a nearby hall was packed to the rafters as was Clinton's event staged outside the Veterans Auditorium where the dinner was scheduled for.

Biden had a well-attended barbecue. Richardson met supporters in the basement of a local hotel, while John Edwards had a large union rally.

It was American politics at its best, with each candidate showing their wares as the race enters its final seven weeks. Whoever wins will surely have earned it.

Huckabee Moves Up

MEANWHILE, over on the Republican side there is a strong sense that Mitt Romney is now the guy to beat. The Iowa caucuses on the Republican side seem nowhere as competitive, with Romney easily leading the field at present.

Senator Fred Thompson had a bright start but seems to be fading fast, while Rudy Giuliani and Senator John McCain have barely visited the state.

The surprise package may well be former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. He has the best down home personality which is what Iowa voters enjoy, and his wisecracking, laid-back style has been going down well in the state.

If he finishes close to Romney despite having spent only a fraction of what he spent, then Huckabee is very much in the running. It would be ironic given the massive amount of money being spent everywhere if Huckabee, who has barely raised a few million, put conventional wisdom on its head and began a late charge. Time will tell.