MANCHESTER, N.H., Jan. 1, 2008 -- By the peculiar calculus of election politics and expectations gamesmanship, a second-place finish in the Republican Iowa caucus will probably be seen as a sign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's vulnerability, or that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's candidacy is faltering.
But if Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., were to finish third in Iowa, it would likely be cast as a kind of "victory."
After all, Romney has invested enormous amounts of money and time in Iowa. He held a commanding lead in the polls there for months.
Huckabee came out of nowhere, but was considered the front-runner only days ago.
For either man, coming in second would be disappointing. But McCain has been mired in the single digits in Iowa polls for months, running a distant fourth or fifth in most surveys. He has barely campaigned there over the past two months, and would probably be ecstatic to wind up third.
'McSurge' in Early Contests?
Unable to move his numbers, despite campaigning in Iowa throughout the summer and fall, McCain turned his attention to New Hampshire, which holds its primary five days after Iowa votes. It appears to have paid off.
His poll results in the Granite State are on the rise, and he is closing ground on Romney, who once held a comfortable lead.
Now, there are even some indications the so-called McSurge in New Hampshire may be leaking over into Iowa.
According to the new Des Moines Register poll, McCain is now third with 13 percent. And Huckabee, with 31 percent and Romney, with 28 percent — a statistical tie. (A CNN poll put McCain in fourth behind former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn.)
Given McCain's previously dismal numbers, third place would likely attract more media attention, with the interpretation by many political analysts that he had done 'surprisingly well,' and would generate momentum going into New Hampshire.
Even better for McCain would be if Huckabee beats Romney.
Banking on the Granite State, Hoping in Iowa
Campaigning on Tuesday in New Hampshire, McCain said, "We've always felt that whenever there were polls that didn't show us doing well, we'd totally disregard them and trash them. And there are obviously some recent polls that show that we are moving, showing good progress."
It was not clear whether that was solely a reference to New Hampshire, or, also, Iowa. The ambiguity may not have been unintentional.
Officially, the McCain camp has tried to play down speculation about doing well in Iowa.
He has no TV spots running in the state, and little else in the way of mass media advertising. Placing the bar practically on the floor, McCain's communications director Jill Hazelbaker said, recently, she would be pleased with any finish above "dead last."
At the same time, there are indications the McCain campaign is thinking that a solid third place result is now very much within the realm of possibility, and maybe even necessary.
The Washington Post reported that McCain campaign manager Rick Davis sent an e-mail to supporters last week, entitled "How We Win," which outlined a state-by-state scenario, beginning with a "strong third" in Iowa, followed by a win in New Hampshire. Left unstated was the difference between a strong third and a distant third.
Back in Play
McCain's campaign itinerary lends further credence to that notion that they're not giving up on Iowa.
When he campaigns in Iowa this week, it will be his third swing through the state in as many weeks.
His new Web ad, contrasting his foreign policy and national security experience to Romney's, is being run in Iowa, as well as other states holding early contests.
His campaign was buoyed by the endorsement of the Des Moines Register — the state's largest paper also endorsed Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side.
To use the Olympic analogy Romney has been citing — saying he'll be happy with the gold or silver in Iowa -- the McCain campaign may be shooting for the bronze.
As in the Olympics, to have a place on the medal stand is a chance to stand on the public stage and bask in the applause and the attention before competing in the next event.