Candidates battle expectations in Iowa
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DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - For presidential candidates in Iowa, it's not just about winning or losing. It's how you play the expectations game.

The big winner of Iowa's kick-off presidential nominating contest on Thursday may not come in first, and the big loser could be a candidate who finishes ahead of most of the field.

The goal is beating expectations -- and every four years the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire elevate or doom candidates who confound predictions and pull a surprise.

"It's not like a football game where you look at the scoreboard and see who won," said Dennis Goldford, a political analyst at Drake University in Des Moines. "Politics is like judging ice skating -- it's interpretive."

Iowa has produced some memorable examples of the expectations game at work. In 1976, Democrat Jimmy Carter was a largely unknown governor who finished second to "undecided," but it earned him enough good publicity to launch a run that put him in the White House.

In 1984, former Vice President Walter Mondale trounced Democrat Gary Hart in Iowa, but Hart's second-place finish drew enough attention to propel him to a New Hampshire win and put a scare into Mondale, the ultimate nominee.

Aware of the risks, politicians work hard to keep expectations low. Democrat Hillary Clinton, who led Iowa polls for months, frequently emphasizes what a difficult challenge she faces in the state.

"When I started here, I was in single digits. I mean, nobody expected me to be doing as well as I'm doing in Iowa," Clinton, one of the best-known politicians in the United States, said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday.

Clinton is in a three-way fight with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. One of them has to finish third -- a spot that will be hard to spin in a positive light.


"The old saying is there are three tickets out of Iowa, but this time there might be only two," said Gordon Fischer, a former Democratic state party chairman and an Obama supporter. "Barring a really, really close finish, third place is going to be very damaging."

Edwards could have the toughest expectations in Iowa, considered a make-or-break state for him after he finished a strong second during his failed 2004 campaign and essentially kept on campaigning after the November 2004 election.

Among Republicans, Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, entered Iowa with perhaps the most to lose. He led polls in the state almost all year until former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee recently shot past him.

Romney's recent struggles have reduced expectations of an easy victory, making an eventual win now seem more impressive.

"Huckabee has done Romney a favor by giving him a serious challenge," Goldford said.

Even the battle for lower spots could offer solace for some lucky loser. A strong fourth-place finish by a second-tier Democrat like Biden, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson or Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd could keep them going.

Among Republicans, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani have largely bypassed Iowa to focus on later states, and third place could give them a boost there.

But McCain faces a must-win in New Hampshire, where he has put all his focus and which votes just five days after Iowa. He won the state during his failed 2000 presidential bid.

"Sometimes you can come in not first and still, quote, 'win,' because of the expectations game," McCain said on Sunday on NBC. "But we have to do very well here in New Hampshire."

(Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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