Sen. Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic presidential nominee if John Edwards had been caught in his lie about an extramarital affair and forced out of the race last year, insists a top Clinton campaign aide, making a charge that could exacerbate previously existing tensions between the camps of Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama.
"I believe we would have won Iowa, and Clinton today would therefore have been the nominee," former Clinton Communications Director Howard Wolfson told ABCNews.com.
Clinton finished third in the Iowa caucuses barely behind Edwards in second place and Obama in first. The momentum of the insurgent Obama campaign beating two better-known candidates -- not to mention an African-American winning in such an overwhelmingly white state -- changed the dynamics of the race forever.
Obama won 37.6 per cent of the vote. Edwards won 29.7 per cent and Clinton won 29.5 per cent, according to results posted by the Iowa Democratic Party.
"Our voters and Edwards' voters were the same people," Wolfson said the Clinton polls showed. "They were older, pro-union. Not all, but maybe two-thirds of them would have been for us and we would have barely beaten Obama."
Two months earlier, Edwards had vociferously, but falsely, denied a story in the National Enquirer about the alleged affair last October, and few in the mainstream media even reported the denial.
The lie "certainly had an impact on the election," Wolfson said.
Former Clinton adviser James Carville told "Good Morning America" that Wolfson's comments are just speculation.
"My instinct tells me she probably would have done better if Senator Edwards wouldn't have been on the ballot," said Carville. "But that wasn't the circustances at the time. I think Howard is fine in engaging in this kind of speculation, but it doesn't really mean very much."
Wolfson said the Clinton campaign was aware of the issue, but did not try to fan the flames.
"Any of the campaigns that would have tried to push that would have been burned by it," said Wolfson.
But he says he is mystified about the failure of the national media to pursue the story as it has allegations of other candidates' affairs.
"I can't say I understand the rules of the media and I'm not sure they do either," he said.
Wolfson's suggestion comes at a delicate time in negotiations between the Clinton and Obama camps, as the Obama campaign decides whether the convention later this month should feature a roll call vote allowing Clinton's delegates to voice their enthusiasm for their candidate. Many Clinton supporters are already resentful of Obama, whom they see as having only won the nomination with the support of a sexist media and Democratic establishment. Wolfson's argument that these same players helped keep Edwards in the race, thus hurting Clinton -- a highly debatable contention -- will likely only fan the flames of Democratic division.
UPDATE: A reality check from the Washington Post's Jon Cohen
Iowa Without Edwards
Would Hillary Clinton have won Iowa if John Edwards had been forced out of the race? Howard Wolfson thinks so....
Wolfson, former director of communications for Clinton's presidential bid, suggested to ABC News that the New York senator would have prevailed in Iowa had Edwards been forced from the race before voting started in early January.
"Our voters and Edwards' voters were the same people," Wolfson told ABC. "They were older, pro-union. Not all, but maybe two-thirds of them would have been for us and we would have barely beaten Obama."
It is a pure hypothetical, of course, and the entire dynamics of the contest would have been different without Edwards. But the public data do not bolster the notion that Clinton would have won.
In the networks' Iowa entrance poll, 43 percent of those who went to a caucus to support Edwards said Obama was their second choice, far fewer, 24 percent said they would support Clinton if their top choice did not garner enough votes at that location. The remainder of Edwards' backers said they would be uncommitted under such a scenario, offered no second choice or said they preferred someone else.
Nor was Clinton the obvious second choice among Edwards supporters in Post-ABC pre-election Iowa caucus polls in July, November or December. In July, for their alternate pick, Iowans split 32 percent for Obama to 30 percent for Clinton. In November, Obama led 43 to 26 percent as backup pick, and he had a slight 37 to 30 percent edge in December.