With only ten weeks until the Iowa caucuses, attention will now more and more focus on what's happening in Iowa as opposed to the national stage. After all, on January 3rd, Iowa will winnow the crowded field down to only three viable candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. The rest of the candidates will crash and burn in the corn fields west of Des Moines.
Herman Cain and Mitt Romney will almost assuredly be two of the lucky winners of the Iowa lottery. Cain, who has vaulted into first place in Iowa, will certainly get one of the three winning tickets despite his gaffes and lack of organization. He has a strong and loyal following among tea party conservatives and is running a successful insurgent campaign against the other "professional politicians" competing for the nomination. The popularity and simplicity of his 9-9-9 plan should attract enough caucus goers to his banner, even if he can't provide free rides and babysitters. Romney, on the other hand, may not have a slogan to rally the troops, but he has the money, the ground organization, and the experience to produce a top three finish in Iowa. He has consistently polled in the low 20% points in Iowa, mimicking his national numbers and providing a sufficient base of loyalists to claim the 2nd ticket out of Iowa. The major question that remains is "Who gets the third ticket out of Iowa?" Here's an assessment of the other candidates chances:
Ron Paul will not be the nominee, but he is positioning himself to win the third ticket out of Iowa, dash the hopes of all the other candidates, and turn this into a two-man race between Romney and Cain. Paul consistently polls in third place at 10 - 12%. He is the only candidate to have stayed on the air with commercials since August, and has put together a large organizations of volunteers. He probably tops out at 15% of the caucus goers, however, which is what it will take to beat him. He also doesn't play well with others, which will cost him votes in the wheeling and dealing that typically takes place in the caucuses between rival camps.
Newt Gingrich has seen his support gradually gaining in Iowa and nationally as more and more Republicans take a second look after flirting with Bachmann and Perry. Gingrich has posted solid performances in the debates and is actively engaging in the kind of retail politics that Iowan's require. His lack of money and organization may cost him. It remains to be seen also if Iowa's social conservative, evangelical caucus goers can forgive him his three marriages and a late-in-life conversion to Catholicism.
Michele Bachmann was riding high after winning the Ames Straw Poll, but her campaign has already crashed. She is low on cash and short on organization. Her only hope for resuscitation is a strong finish in Iowa, particularly since she now has no organization left in New Hampshire. For Bachmann, there is no Plan B. If she doesn't finish in at least third place in Iowa, she can head back home to Minnesota. It's increasingly difficult to see that happening, but if Cain stumbles she might siphon off enough of his voters to pull off a come-back.
Rick Santorum is "all in" in Iowa. He has virtually moved to the state and is tailoring his appeal to the social conservative, evangelical voters who dominate the caucuses. Mired below 5% in the polls (nationally and in Iowa), Santorum hopes to be the Huckabee of 2012. He's clearly a long shot, but he wouldn't be the first long shot to come in with a winning ticket in Iowa. Don't count him out quite yet.
Rick Perry may or may not realize it, but his entire campaign depends on Iowa. Having followed the opposite path from Herman Cain, going from first to last place in a month, Perry absolutely, positively must have at least a third place finish in Iowa to continue his campaign. The good news is that Perry has the money and the organization to be able to pull off a come back in Iowa, while not neglecting the two early primary states of New Hampshire and South Carolina. Perry's new "Cut, Balance, and Grow" program, featuring a 20% flat tax, gives him new momentum and a reason for caucus goers to take a second look. Cain's recent misstatement on abortion may cost him "Right to Life" voters who migrate to Perry, who has always been a favorite of evangelicals. He must, however, avoid the gaffes, improve his debate performance, and stay on message. Good news--he's exceptional at retail politics and the rest of the field has more problems than he does.
And the winner is--Rick Perry is in the best position to take the third ticket out of Iowa. But then, Iowa always produces it surprises also.