Sen. Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic presidential nominee if John Edwards had been caught in his lie about an extramarital affair and forced out of the race last year, insists a top Clinton campaign aide, making a charge that could exacerbate previously existing tensions between the camps of Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama.
"I believe we would have won Iowa, and Clinton today would therefore have been the nominee," former Clinton Communications Director Howard Wolfson told ABCNews.com.
Clinton finished third in the Iowa caucuses barely behind Edwards in second place and Obama in first. The momentum of the insurgent Obama campaign beating two better-known candidates -- not to mention an African-American winning in such an overwhelmingly white state -- changed the dynamics of the race forever.
Obama won 37.6 per cent of the vote. Edwards won 29.7 per cent and Clinton won 29.5 per cent, according to results posted by the Iowa Democratic Party.
"Our voters and Edwards' voters were the same people," Wolfson said the Clinton polls showed. "They were older, pro-union. Not all, but maybe two-thirds of them would have been for us and we would have barely beaten Obama."
Two months earlier, Edwards had vociferously, but falsely, denied a story in the National Enquirer about the alleged affair last October, and few in the mainstream media even reported the denial.
The lie "certainly had an impact on the election," Wolfson said.
Former Clinton adviser James Carville told "Good Morning America" that Wolfson's comments are just speculation.
"My instinct tells me she probably would have done better if Senator Edwards wouldn't have been on the ballot," said Carville. "But that wasn't the circustances at the time. I think Howard is fine in engaging in this kind of speculation, but it doesn't really mean very much."
Wolfson said the Clinton campaign was aware of the issue, but did not try to fan the flames.
"Any of the campaigns that would have tried to push that would have been burned by it," said Wolfson.
But he says he is mystified about the failure of the national media to pursue the story as it has allegations of other candidates' affairs.
"I can't say I understand the rules of the media and I'm not sure they do either," he said.
Wolfson's suggestion comes at a delicate time in negotiations between the Clinton and Obama camps, as the Obama campaign decides whether the convention later this month should feature a roll call vote allowing Clinton's delegates to voice their enthusiasm for their candidate. Many Clinton supporters are already resentful of Obama, whom they see as having only won the nomination with the support of a sexist media and Democratic establishment. Wolfson's argument that these same players helped keep Edwards in the race, thus hurting Clinton -- a highly debatable contention -- will likely only fan the flames of Democratic division.
Wolfson's contention is not shared by the Obama campaign, whose officials never bought the argument that Clinton was the second choice of Edwards voters. Immediately after Edwards dropped out of the race at the end of January, Obama won eleven straight contests in a row.
And Clinton's steadfast refusal to say she regretted her vote to authorize use of force in Iraq -- unlike Obama, who always opposed the war, and Edwards, who said his vote for war was a mistake -- turned off many anti-wars liberals in Iowa, who make up a disproportionate number of caucus goers.