PHILADELPHIA (MCT) — With 2 1/2 weeks left before the voting begins, the races for the major-party presidential nominations are proceeding down similarly unfathomable paths.

For months, both contests have had a clear national front-runner, with Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton looking stronger than Republican Rudy Giuliani.

Now, to varying degrees, each of those candidates appears to be in trouble in the early-voting states, including Iowa and New Hampshire, places that will dominate the narrative for the next month.

And both New Yorkers are banking on the larger states that loom on the not-so-distant horizon — many of them voting on Feb. 5 — for bailouts, should they prove necessary.

The question, in a year when voters in both parties seem focused on electability, is whether any candidate can absorb a series of early defeats, maintain his or her strength in subsequent contests, and emerge the winner.

The answer is of more-than-casual interest to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and the other contenders in both parties.

History is not on the side of the candidate who comes up short in the Iowa caucuses, which open the process on Jan. 3, and the New Hampshire primary, on Jan. 8.

In the past four contested nomination fights, the Iowa victor has won the prize all four times: Republican Bob Dole in 1996, Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush in 2000, and Democrat John Kerry in 2004.

During the past eight nominating cycles, only one candidate, Bill Clinton in 1992, has prevailed without winning Iowa or New Hampshire. In that year, it should be noted, the Iowa caucuses were uncontested, with Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin running as favorite son.

Then again, there's never been a campaign with 20 states voting on a single day, as happens Feb. 5. On that day, about 45 percent of all the delegates to both parties' national conventions will be chosen. So precedents might not apply.

Both Clinton, in particular, and Giuliani have enough money to keep going in the face of early setbacks. They also have comfortable leads in the polls, at least for now, in many of the big-delegate Feb. 5 states, including New Jersey, New York and California.

Adding to the volatility of the current races is the scarcity of fundamental disagreements among the candidates within each party on the major issues.

Pollsters say that pushes primary and caucus voters to concern themselves more with determining who looks as though he or she could be a winner in November. Even on the electability scale, though, the current picture seems muddled.

When asked in surveys, Democrats answer overwhelmingly that they consider Clinton their strongest candidate against the Republicans. In memos to supporters, Clinton strategist Mark Penn has highlighted

those numbers, as well as her continuing lead in the national horse race, as reassurance that all is well.

But in several recent polls, the senator from New York has not done as well as either Edwards or Obama in matchups with prospective Republican opponents, losing in some and winning by smaller margins in others.

On the Republican side, Giuliani's general-election appeal — and his presumed ability to put Democratic states such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania in play — has been undermined by his slippage in national polls, the result, in part, of Huckabee's rise.

The flow of news, too, hasn't been good for either Clinton or Giuliani.

For much of the past two weeks, Clinton's intended message — that she is the one candidate with the experience to make change possible — has been drowned out by her campaign's off-target attacks on Obama.

First, in response to an Obama stump-speech line about how he never expected to be where he is today, the Clinton campaign pointed to an essay Obama wrote as a young boy talking about wanting to become president. The campaign was widely ridiculed for having done so.

Then, Bill Shaheen, a national co-chairman of the Clinton campaign, said in an interview last week that Obama, if he became the Democratic nominee, would be attacked by Republicans for his admitted drug use as a teenager.

That, too, was widely viewed as a cheap shot. Shaheen resigned his post on Thursday, and Clinton disowned his words on Friday.

The Clinton campaign is not conceding that Iowa or any other early state is lost.

Knowing that an Iowa win would undo whatever damage the campaign has incurred, the senator is scheduled to launch an "Every County Counts Tour" there today. The candidate and her surrogates plan to visit all 99 Iowa counties over five days, with Clinton hitting 16 of them.

In the first four states with Democratic primaries and caucuses, Clinton now has a substantial lead only in Nevada, which caucuses on Jan. 19. In Iowa, she's no better than even with Obama, with Edwards not far behind. In New Hampshire, Obama has caught her, at least in some polls.

For his part, Giuliani has made news largely through unwanted stories about the extramarital affair he conducted as New York mayor with his current wife, Judith.

During the past few weeks, his actual candidacy has been almost an afterthought, with the Republican conversation dominated by questions about the impact of religion on the Huckabee-Romney battle in Iowa.

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In Tampa Friday, Giuliani made a speech intended to refocus his campaign, portraying himself as "a leader who is ready to lead right now." He's counting heavily on a victory in Florida Jan. 29 to provide a boost heading into the extravaganza on Feb. 5.

Giuliani has all but given up in Iowa, where former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson is looking to push him out of the top three. He's doing better in New Hampshire, where he and Arizona Sen. John McCain are positioned to challenge Romney should the former governor falter.

Polls currently show Huckabee ahead in Iowa, Romney in New Hampshire, Huckabee in South Carolina (which votes Jan. 19), Giuliani in Florida, and no clear leader in Michigan (Jan. 15) or Nevada (Jan. 19).

How much Iowa will influence New Hampshire, and how much both will influence the other states, no one can say. This race might turn out to be one of a kind.