Obama: Betting it all on Iowa?

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As you probably expected, the topic Matt Lauer really wanted to discuss with Obama strategist David Axelrod and Clinton adviser Howard Wolfson this morning was how aggressively Obama planned to attack Clinton at the Democratic debate in Philly tonight. In attempting to lower expectations, however, Axelrod said something that caught my attention. After a set-up piece by Andrea Mitchell that explored the question of whether Obama has been too soft in his campaign and the risks of criticizing Clinton, Lauer asked Axelrod, “If indeed Senator Obama is prepared to turn up the heat, why did he wait so long?”

Axelrod: First of all, let me dispute one of the premises of Andrea’s piece. We’ve always — I know there’s a fascination about national polls, particularly in the national political community, but we’ve always known this race goes through Iowa and we’ve spent most of our time there in the last eight months. And as yesterday’s University of Iowa poll showed, we’re in a dead even race with Senator Clinton. So I don’t feel the same sense of urgency that was expressed in that piece to step out of character.

Lauer: You don’t think that Senator Clinton is the clear frontrunner in this race right now?

Axelrod: I think this race starts in Iowa and whoever comes out of Iowa in good shape is going to be in the lead position for this nomination. And right now, it’s a dead heat. Just the other day, the Clinton campaign sent another 100 organizers into Iowa because they understand what a critical fight that is.

So now it’s official: Iowa is Obama’s everything. It’s long been the conventional wisdom about John Edwards’ campaign that he was staking it all on Iowa. And there’s no question that Edwards needs to perform extremely well there for his campaign to move forward after the caucuses, given his relative lack of funds. But as the Edwards folks have justifiably been pointing out lately, Iowa is no less a second home for Obama than it is for Edwards (according to the Des Moines Register, Obama has spent 51 days in Iowa this cycle to Edwards’ 49). And Obama has wildly outspent Edwards on advertising — $3.5 million versus just $27,000, according to the Edwards campaign.

So much for Iowa being diminished by the front-loading of big-state primaries. Given how much all three top Dems are staking on Iowa, the nomination could be all but decided by the time the big states get to vote.

UPDATE: You can see this morning’s Today Show coverage here.