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CAMPAIGN '08: IOWA IN ACTION

Woulda, coulda, shoulda: a race that might have been

Three in the 'lower tier' draw similar support. If just one had run . . . ?

January 03, 2008|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

DES MOINES — What do Bill Richardson, Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd have in common?

If only one of them were running for the Democratic presidential nomination, it might be a different-looking race.

As the Iowa campaign crushes into its final hours, all three of the "lower-tier" Democratic candidates find themselves scrambling for caucus support among an overlapping pool of Democrats, many of whom are drawn by the candidates' political and foreign policy experience.

None of the three has reached double digits in recent Iowa polls. But combined, their supporters would put them within reach of "viability": 15% support under the formula the Democratic Party uses to allot delegates.

Some supporters wonder what might have been.

"If Richardson and Dodd weren't involved, you wouldn't be talking tiers," Mike Aasheim, 36, a Biden precinct captain in suburban Urbandale, said at the start of a New Year's Day rally for the candidate in downtown Des Moines. "If he didn't have Richardson and Dodd, Joe would have higher numbers, for sure."

The other candidates' supporters could say the same of Biden.

As it is, all three candidates face the increasing likelihood of campaign extinction. Connecticut Sen. Dodd has barely registered in recent Iowa polls. Delaware Sen. Biden and New Mexico Gov. Richardson have each been polling at about 6%. (The same polls put New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at around 29%, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama at about 27% and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards at about 26%.)

"Had only one of them run, it probably would have given that candidate a better chance to break into the top tier of candidates," said Peverill Squire, a University of Iowa political analyst. But given the "built-in advantage based on celebrity" that Clinton and Obama have, and the fact that Edwards placed second in the 2004 caucuses, it's unclear how high one of the other three could have risen, he said.

Still, he said, it could have shifted the campaign's focus, giving foreign policy more prominence.

"If there's one sort of alternative candidate . . . that one voice probably would be better able to be heard and stand out more in a crowded debate," Squire said.

Biden and Richardson were better positioned for such a role, Squire added. "Dodd is an interesting character. He's just never come up with an issue he can call his own."

The other trailing Democratic candidates, Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, have built their campaigns around more populist antiwar themes and appeal to a different part of the Democratic spectrum.

Supporters of Richardson, Biden and Dodd cite reasons for backing their candidates that are nearly interchangeable.

"I like his experience," Susan Berch, 46, said of Richardson just before a campaign stop at the Madison County Historical Society in Winterset, the picturesque hometown of John Wayne. "I think we're going into a real dubious time in the world. . . . We need someone who has experience. Hillary does, but it's secondhand."

Berch's second choice? Biden, and for the same reasons. He's second only because Richardson caught her eye first.

"His commercials came earlier," Berch said, sitting in a tall-windowed room overlooking a snowy ravine and the county courthouse in the distance.

Another Richardson supporter agreed.

"I hope that Richardson takes a strong third and then he goes for it and he invites Biden to be his vice president," Denise Day, 43, said after hearing Richardson talk at a winery outside Indianola. "That would be my dream ticket."

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scott.martelle@latimes.com

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