Candidates with a viable campaign after the Iowa Caucus please step forward. Uh, not so fast Richie Gephardt.

Never before had I witnessed the messy democracy that is the Iowa caucus. I’m not convinced this is the best way to elect a president, but it sure made for exciting reality TV on C-SPAN. All this political horse trading was going on , and I didn’t understand half of it. What I did understand, all too readily, were the results. My horse did not win this race.

John Kerry’s 38% victory translates into 20 delegates. That resusitates his campaign for New Hampshire, and I dare say that he’ll probably poll neck and neck with Dean there by the end of the week. John Edwards’ 32% showing equals 17 delegates, and his campaign should likewise receive a big polling and fundraising boost. Howard Dean’s surprisingly lackluster 18% finish still gives him 7 delegates which isn’t bad considering Richard Gephardt’s disappointing 11% finish gave him none. Rumor this evening has it that Gephardt will exit the race tomorrow. Conventional wisdom says this helps the Edwards’ campaign mostly since they tend to appeal to the same voter demographic. [FYI on the delegate count: Dean leads in that tally thanks to unelected “super delegates” of which he’s already claimed the majority. Current breakdown, assuming the Iowa numbers are solid, is Dean 142, Kerry 79, Clark 40.]

Although I like Dick Gephardt and think he’s a class act, I confess to being happy that we’re finally getting down to brass tacks. The remaining candidates (Dean, Kerry, Edwards, Kucinich, Clark, Sharpton, and Lieberman) still equate to too many bodies on a stage to hold an effective debate, so with luck we’ll have Kucinich, Sharpton, and Lieberman drop soon. That’d be just fine by me.

The worst news of the evening was also the best: Dean’s third place finish means a more extended political season. To junkies like me that’s reason to rejoice even on a day when my guy didn’t do so well. That said, I wonder if this doesn’t mean a split convention for the Demos down the road. We’ve not really gotten Clark into the mix yet, and he has his own particular draws against all the candidates. (He’s a war veteran like Kerry, he’s anti-Iraq invasion like Dean, and he’s a southerner like Edwards.) Perhaps the democratic electorate splits four ways and we go to the convention without a nominee.

If so, who’s the candidate? Assuredly not Dean, who would oust the Clintonista-led DNC were it in his power (and given the animus they’ve displayed toward him, I’m not sure many would blame him for doing it). I suspect it would be a Kerry/Edwards ticket, which is fairly potent against Bush/Cheney. Not sure how they’d deal with Dean and supporters in that scenario, though, and given Dean’s base, they’d have to come up with something.

But all that is fairly far afield. Iowa is one small Midwest state and the results, while important (especially to Gephardt), carry diminishing meaning as we move forward. New Hampshire should be a dogfight, but the real tale of the tape will come Feb. 3 as multiple states hold primaries. Look for more candidates—notably Lieberman—to drop out after that.