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As expected, Hillary talks down Iowa’s importance

As predicted (read here), Team Clinton has started talking down the importance of Iowa. On ABC with George Stephanopoulous, Clinton said that she never really expected to surpass Barack Obama and John Edwards, who had double-digit leads over her in the local polls for the Democratic caucuses, to be held there on January 3. On Iowa, Clinton now says “I’m not expecting anything.”

Truth be told, though: the rationale to talk down expectations seems a little different from my earlier prediction. That rationale centered on Clinton throwing all her weight into the New Hampshire fight — a state that is very much in Clinton’s strategy — but with some polls now carefully showing Edwards gaining on Obama while other polls put Clinton ahead of the pack, the rationale is more likely based on a two-pronged offensive, instead of simply talking down Iowa and winning big in New Hampshire instead, after sapping Obama’s and Edwards’ strength as the two men go head-to-head in Iowa in the last days before the Iowa caucus.

The first is that Clinton, in the last days before the caucus, is seeking the underdog-mantle. It is always handy to bring down expectations, especially when you have the idea that you may actually win; it gives great momentum in terms of press coverage if you’re considered the loser, but manage to end first in the marathon.

The second is that Team Clinton is obviously hoping that, by sort of stepping out of the dogfight arena, the two pitbull terriers Obama and Edwards will go at each other with a vengeance. Edwards has been gaining in several polls and was even placed ahead of Clinton and Obama in this one. That will reinvigorate an Edwards who knows that it’s “Iowa or bust” for his campaign. With the Clinton-Obama competition of the past weeks, Obama knows he can’t lose Iowa either (it’s gotta be either first or second place), and so he’ll be trying to tear Edwards apart. The past 48 hours or so already saw Obama retuning his stump speech to include some of the anger Edwards has been throwing at his audience.

This would leave room for Clinton to basically resume her ‘above the fray’-stance which she had up until about a month ago, when she started slipping versus Obama. Or so Clinton hopes. One thing’s for sure, though: the campaign would never take such a risk (because it is certainly that) if it didn’t think it was sensible. Perhaps the vote for the caucus-goers’ second choice is what Team Clinton is after.

Another interesting tidbit: according to an overview of these polls, Obama’s momentum seems to have faded. For almost a month Obama was riding high and with each step Team Clinton undertook to bruise him, he seemed to only gain. He had the usual Momentum, which ordinarily lasts for a maximum of three weeks, sometimes four if the direct opponent makes big mistakes. Those days are in the past now and Edwards seems more determined than ever to at least get second place. And he won’t be doing that without drawing blood, so Obama had better prepare.

Another certainty is after January 3, the endorsements game will begin, and it could very well be that Clinton will be the one to go into the New Hampshire arena with most endorsements.