With 21 days to go before the Iowa caucuses, Newt has emerged as the clear front-runner but 55% of likely caucus-goers say that they could change their minds between now and January 3. It is easy to construct a scenario in which you can throw a blanket over all six contenders with everyone getting to 14% - 15% and the winner emerging with 20% - 21%. If that happens, order of finish will be critical for the future of each candidate's campaign. Here's my assessment of where the candidates stand and their possibilities in Iowa:
Newt Gingrich--The bad news is that Gingrich is far ahead in first place. The reason that this is bad news is that a month ago, finishing third would have been a win for Newt. Now, anything but a first place finish will be a loss. Newt faces three challenges in Iowa. First, he is just now getting an organization up and running. Second, as the front runner, the other candidates will throw everything they can at him over the next three weeks. Paul, Bachmann, Romney, and to some extent Perry will all challenge Newt's record and particularly his conservative credentials. More importantly, he can expect nasty, vicious personal attacks waged through anonymous dirt sheets and phone calls. Third, Newt himself can be his own worst enemy. In the face of a constant barrage of attacks, will the "bad Newt" suddenly reappear. That's certainly what everyone expects. As a result, Gingrich may have trouble turning his 30% poll ratings into more than 15% of the actual caucus-goers.
Mitt Romney--After having all but ignored Iowa during the summer and fall, Romney is now scrambling to avoid disaster. At the worst possible time, he had his worst debate performance last week. He seems to be off-message and unsure of himself for the first time during the campaign. He has abandoned his strategy of attacking Obama and staying above the fray. He is now committing serious resources and attention to Iowa, including dispatching his wife, who hates to campaign, but it may be too little to late. Romney could still win Iowa, but if he falls to a fourth or fifth place, which is equally probable, his New Hampshire firewall will crumble.
Ron Paul--Everyone agrees that Paul has the most loyal and enthusiastic supporters, and that he has a good chance of finish second or even first in Iowa. That's the conventional wisdom at least. But Paul and his supporters are their own worst enemies. On the stump, Paul is easily sidetracked into discussions of eliminating federal drug laws, hemp cultivation, and arcane expositions on the federal reserve. His foreign policy views are clearly out of touch with the Republican mainstream. Yes he might win Iowa, but it is also likely that his young followers are so hung over from the New Year's celebration that they forget to go to the caucuses. 10% and a fifth or sixth place finish is also a reasonable expectation for Paul.
Rick Perry--Perry is committing the resources and time needed to pull off a surprise in Iowa. Unlike his debate performances, he generally makes a good showing in person and Iowans will get plenty of opportunities to see him up close between now and the caucuses. Perry will spend 14 days on a bus tour of 43 cities and towns making his case. Perry is now honing his stump speech to an anti-Washington, anti-Obama, anti-Congress message that should resonate with Iowa voters. His "I'm a Christian" ads are designed to appeal to the evangelical voters who comprise 60% of caucus-goers. He needs some big time Iowa endorsements also, however. Perry has to finish third or fourth (if you discount Ron Paul, which I do), in order to survive. He know that.
Michele Bachmann--Like Perry, the Bachmann campaign cannot survive less than a third or fourth place finish in Iowa, but she is working hard to exceed expectations and could finish even higher. Bachmann is pushing four points. First, she is a native daughter. Second, she is a "consistent conservative". Third, conservatives don't have to settle for less than in this election. Finally, recognizing the threat to her campaign and having latched on to a clever ploy in the last debate, she is openly attacking "Newt Romney". All this may work and recreate her straw poll magic. She will spend the next 21 days visiting 91 of the 99 counties in Iowa.
Rick Santorum--Since declaring his candidacy, Santorum has virtually lived in Iowa, knowing that his meagre chance depends on exceeding expectations. He has worked hard to lower the bar, claiming that a fourth or even fith place finish is a victory. In fact, if he can finish in fourth place ahead of Perry and Bachmann, he will knock them out of the race and generate momentum for his campaign. He is the only candidate who has already been to all 99 counties and claims a grassroots organization in every county that will surprise everyone on caucus night. This has yet to be seen. If I were going to bet $10,000, it would be that Santorum would finish in sixth place in Iowa, but I'm not a betting man.