As millions of Americans turn their full attention to the Republican presidential primary for the first time, there are two competing choruses with seemingly opposite narratives regarding the importance of the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.
The wall-to-wall TV, radio and print coverage of the caucuses certainly fits the definition of hype. The implicit message is that Iowa is a critical and all-important contest. This, of course, prompts a backlash from press critics and political pundits who downplay Iowa to the point of saying it really doesn't matter all that much.
As usual, the truth is somewhere in between.
Until former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) started to drop in the polls just before Christmas, it appeared for a week or two in December as if the Hawkeye State might deal a major setback to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's shot at the nomination.
Now, however, Gingrich's fall has returned the race to its oft-revisited state of equilibrium, with Romney playing the confident role of likely nominee being chased by a pack of second-tier candidates who are unlikely to pose a serious challenge to him. On Tuesday, Romney ridiculed Gingrich's failure to make the ballot in Virginia, comparing him to "Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory."
If one of Romney's challengers does unexpectedly well in Iowa, or if Romney does unexpectedly poorly, then the caucuses could shift the dynamics of the race. But if things go as they are currently on track to, Iowa will likely position Romney to win the nomination.
Romney is not going gangbusters by any means. He's hovering around 20 percent in Iowa, where he's been all year. But he is facing a field of fellow candidates even more flawed than he.
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is currently Romney's closest competitor in the polls. Paul will still likely have a strong showing in Iowa, despite having been dogged for the last week by coverage of newsletters that appeared in his name during the 80's and 90's that included racist and bigoted comments.
Paul has a committed core of supporters, and is believed to have the most organized campaign operation in Iowa. So his support -- until new polling data says otherwise -- is expected to remain steady around 20 percent, give or take a few points. But the rest of the GOP field has begun to go after Paul on the newsletters and on other topics. Gingrich ripped Paul during an interview on CNN Tuesday and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) criticized his claim that he will be able to cut $1 trillion from the federal budget upon taking office.
Gingrich, who hit 31 percent in the second week of December, has fallen to around 14 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of Iowa polling. The closest competitor after that is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, at roughly 12 percent.
Rounding out the field are Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn), Santorum and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Bachmann peaked in the high 20's in late July, but has since fallen back to earth and is now just under 9 percent.
Santorum is the only candidate who has campaigned in Iowa and has not caught a wave of support there at any time. As Jan. 3 approaches it looks less likely that he ever will. He is currently at just under 8 percent.
Huntsman has not campaigned in Iowa, choosing instead to bank on New Hampshire's Jan. 10 primary. He is at 4 percent in the RCP average of Iowa polling.
If the current dynamic holds -- and it very well could change dramatically over the course of a few days -- it looks as though the outcome will be good for Romney. A win or strong second-place showing would put him in the driver's seat for the nomination. A third-place finish for Romney would, given expectations at this point, be a disappointment but not a serious problem. If he somehow finished fourth or worse, though, he would face real questions.
Gingrich and Perry are the two candidates who would be a threat to Romney if they were able to post a huge win in Iowa and catch a groundswell that took them to a strong showing in New Hampshire, where Romney is expected to win, and on to a possible victory in South Carolina on Jan. 21.
But increasingly, it looks as if both Gingrich and Perry have been so badly wounded, by an onslaught of critical TV ads and by their own gaffes, respectively, that they can only hope to limp to the finish line on Jan. 3. That is not the kind of outcome they need to challenge Romney, who is much better organized and financed and has made a consistent and strong argument that he is the GOP's best hope to defeat President Obama.
It is possible that Bachmann or Santorum could wildly out-perform their poll numbers and finish in the top three or even win, if there is a dramatic shift by Iowa's large population of conservative Christians to unite behind them. But that result would do little other than marginalize the Iowa result, since neither candidate is considered in the same tier as Romney.
If Romney and Paul finish in the top three in Iowa, whoever rounds out that group with them will face a daunting set of hurdles. They will have to compete and do well in New Hampshire, South Carolina and then in the very expensive state of Florida on Jan. 31.
And then, possibly an even greater challenge will confront them. There are four contests in early February -- Colorado, Nevada, Minnesota and Maine -- that are likely to blunt any hope of momentum for an anti-Romney candidate. That's because all four are caucus states.
Caucuses are quite different from primaries, because going to a caucus meeting and spending two to three hours there requires much more effort from a voter than simply walking into a polling place and casting a ballot. Caucus states therefore pose greater organizational challenges for campaigns.
Only the Romney and Paul campaigns have been preparing for the caucuses in these states. The other campaigns have done little to nothing. And so a third-place Iowa winner who fared well during the rest of January would be faced with a series of likely losses in early February, followed by what Romney's political director Rich Beeson called a "Rubicon of downtime" until two Feb. 28 primaries in Arizona and Michigan.
Then on March 6, Super Tuesday, four of the 11 contests are caucuses, further undercutting the opportunity for a Romney challenger such as Gingrich or Perry to gain any advantage.
Given all this, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus signaled Tuesday that the Republican primary could be over rather quickly, a statement that could only be viewed as a nod to Romney's likely victory.
"We will have a nominee pretty quickly," Priebus said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Priebus, who in the fall predicted a drawn out primary at a time when Romney's challengers appeared more formidable, will only be wrong if Iowa serves up a dramatic surprise next Tuesday night.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly described Colorado as a primary state. It is a caucus state.
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