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Election 2020 Buttigieg

Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks to supporters during a campaign stop Monday at Maquoketa Middle School in Maquoketa, Iowa.

After more than a year of frenetic efforts, the Iowa caucuses campaign has hit the home stretch. With just one month until the Democratic nominating process formally begins on Feb. 3, here are some things to watch:

Changes in the polls. As 2020 starts, polling averages show a tight four-way Iowa race among former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren with Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar registering some recent gains. But history shows the last month often produces dramatic shifts.

The classic Democratic case was 2004, when former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean began the final month leading Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in third place. But a bitter Dean-Gephardt media war sank both, and Kerry emerged on top with North Carolina Sen. John Edwards second.

Among Republicans, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum rose from the pack in 2012 to nip front-runner Mitt Romney at the wire.

Polls to ignore for the next month: national surveys. They'll change, perhaps dramatically, after the Iowa results are in.

The Jan. 14 Des Moines Register debate. The last major televised confrontation before the caucuses will provide an indication of how the contenders view their standing -- and could give one or another some well-timed momentum.

Last month's debate indicated some rivals believe the top target is Buttigieg, the unexpected contender whose term as South Bend, Ind., mayor ended Wednesday. But they need to be careful; Democrats often react badly to negative campaigning. Just look back to 2004 or how California Sen. Kamala Harris' challenge to Biden's civil rights bona fides boomeranged last summer.

The Des Moines Register endorsement. A definite boost for the recipient, though no guarantee of victory. The paper's 2016 endorsement of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have helped her edge Sanders, but its support of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio did little in the GOP race. And in 2008, the paper backed neither caucus winner, Republican Mike Huckabee or Barack Obama.

At times, Jeff Sessions proved a pleasant surprise as attorney general by resisting some of President Donald Trump's most outrageous demands. By contrast, his successor, William Barr, has been a distinct disappointment.

The Senate's impeachment trial. Even harder to figure. A lengthy trial could keep Sens. Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar and Cory Booker from campaigning in the state, leaving the field to Biden and Buttigieg.

But a highlight moment during Trump's trial could boost one of the senators tied down in Washington.

Who is going negative and what does it mean? A very tricky consideration. One guide: a candidate going negative is probably afraid of losing. The target might be gaining.

Trumpian interference. A potential for mischief. The President is essentially unopposed for re-nomination in the GOP caucuses, since his two rivals, Joe Walsh and Bill Weld, are concentrating on the Feb. 11 New Hampshire primary.

But that won't keep Trump, possibly with an eye on November, from appearing in the state or training his own unique political criticism on Biden or another of his potential Democratic rivals. He's scheduled a Milwaukee rally the night of the Des Moines Register debate.

Unpredictable turnout. The intensity of the Democratic campaign and strong anti-Trump feelings mean a record is likely, surpassing the estimated 238,000 Democrats who caucused in 2008, when Obama defeated Edwards and Clinton.

One uncertainty is how a big turnout will impact campaigns like Warren and Buttigieg that have invested most heavily in the organizations that have proved crucial in the past.

But a related factor is how a big turnout affects the ideological makeup of the caucus electorate. Traditionally, low turnouts have been thought to favor each party's activists, Democratic liberals and Republican conservatives. But recent polling shows Iowa Democrats as a whole are more moderate than perceived, meaning a large turnout could favor the more moderate hopefuls -- Buttigieg, Biden and Klobuchar -- over the more liberal ones -- Sanders and Warren.

How many winners? The traditional analysis is there are three tickets out of Iowa; while the winner gets a boost, so might an unexpected runner-up or a surprise third place finisher.

By finishing third in 1988, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis laid the basis for becoming the frontrunner when he won in New Hampshire. And every Iowa winner since then has won the Democratic nomination, except in 1992 when rivals conceded the field to favorite son Sen. Tom Harkin and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was the ultimate winner.

This year, an added wrinkle could produce not only three tickets but two winners. Besides the usual contest for county convention delegates in which candidates with under 15% in a precinct caucus lose out, new rules require the Iowa Democrats to count the initial preference of every attendee, something Republicans have always done.

In a close race, it would be possible for one candidate to have the most votes -- but not the most projected national convention delegates.

In any case, the Iowa winners will likely dominate the campaign's next week in New Hampshire. But the state's true impact won't be evident until well after the primary parade moves past the Granite state to Nevada, South Carolina and beyond.

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Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News and a frequent contributor.

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