Consider this: Howard Dean wins the Iowa caucuses - but by a bare margin. In a surprise twist, John Kerry comes in a strong second, trumping Richard Gephardt.
In New Hampshire a week later, Dr. Dean again wins, but the real news is Wesley Clark, who loses to the former Vermont governor by only a few percentage points. Suddenly, Dean is looking vulnerable - even weak - as he heads into a series of volatile primaries in the South and West. Several other candidates drop out and throw their support behind one of the Dean "alternatives."
As improbable as it may be, this is one scenario circulating in political camps about how Dean - still the clear favorite for his party's nomination - could, in fact, lose. Most Democratic operatives agree that if Dean pulls off decisive wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, he will gain strength and momentum that may make him almost impossible to beat.
But amid growing signs that the race is tightening, many campaigns are increasingly pushing one of the long-held mantras of primary politics: It's not where you finish that matters - but whether you beat expectations.
"Win is a relative term," suggests one adviser to a Dean rival.
Certainly, Dean's front-runner status has seemed less commanding of late. In national polls, his lead has shrunk to single digits, now just barely ahead of General Clark. Polls also show Clark now tied for second place in New Hampshire, where Dean's lead, while strong, has declined slightly in recent weeks.
At the same time, the Iowa race is undeniably tight: Dean and Gephardt are still fighting for first place, but there are hints of potential surges from Kerry and Sen. John Edwards that could complicate the battle for second or third.
In some ways, Dean is facing the same challenge all frontrunners face as an election approaches - battling increased scrutiny from the media, and pounding attacks from rivals, just as many undecided voters are beginning to tune into the race. While Dean's supporters may be solidly with him, those still making up their minds may be more inclined to give a second look at the "underdog" candidates.
"Maintaining frontrunner status is very difficult," says Dick Bennett, a New Hampshire-based pollster. "The Dean campaign is very well organized - probably better than any other campaign. But when new [voters] are added to the pool, it's difficult to convert them to strong supporters."
Rival campaigns also suggest that Dean has created some of his own problems, with a string of gaffes and misstatements raising new questions among voters about his temperament. While acknowledging Dean is still "the favorite to win the nomination," one Democratic operative adds: "There's no question ... that his misstatements and the poor judgment he's shown in recent weeks have taken a toll on him." If questions about Dean allow other candidates to gain in Iowa and New Hampshire, the aide continues, even if Dean ends up winning both states, "there's still an opportunity to take away the nomination."
In past cycles, surprise finishes - but not actual wins - in Iowa or New Hampshire have often propelled candidates to their party's nomination. In 1992, Bill Clinton's second-place showing in New Hampshire earned him the label the "Comeback Kid." In 1972, George McGovern's third-place victory in Iowa was interpreted as a stunning victory and gave him a surge of momentum.
Most observers now see Clark as the strongest potential challenger to Dean, speculating that a strong finish in New Hampshire might help propel the former NATO general to victory in Feb. 3 primary states such as South Carolina.
Still, there are reasons to believe Dean could withstand even a late surge from a rival like Clark. For one thing, were Dean to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, even narrowly, it would be a rare achievement. Since the modern primary system began, the only nonincumbent to win both states was Al Gore. (Jimmy Carter almost did, but finished second in Iowa behind "uncommitted.")
Even if Dean were to lose in Iowa to Gephardt, the loss may be mitigated: The Missouri congressman is unlikely to gain enough momentum from a win to be a serious factor in New Hampshire - where he's far behind in the polls - and where Dean is likely to triumph. And if Clark gains momentum in New Hampshire, and does well on Feb. 3, he may falter in the run of states holding primaries after that - places like Washington, Michigan, and Maine - where Dean has strong organizations and leads in the polls.
Moreover, observers note, the candidate with the most impressive surge so far has clearly been Dean himself. He began the year as an asterisk, not a frontrunner, and still manages to portray himself as an outsider candidate. "Dean has done an incredible job coming from nowhere to where he is now," says Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University. "We didn't know who he was when he started coming here and shaking hands. He was a little short doctor from Vermont."
Polls show Dean's supporters tend to be unusually committed - which could give him an additional edge in the Iowa caucuses, where waffling voters can sometimes be persuaded to switch sides.