12/30/2011 11:24 am ET | Updated Dec 30, 2011

Iowa 2012: The Race For Third

MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa -- Nearly every Republican presidential candidate wants to win in Iowa on Jan. 3. But as the caucuses grow nearer, some are fighting to make the top three.

With former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) expected to place at the top of the pack on Tuesday, the other candidates -- save former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has put little work into the state -- are clamoring for the next spot, which will help keep them in the running as the process moves to New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), whose previously strong support has faded, plays down her polling numbers during stump speeches around the state. She admitted in Marshalltown on Thursday that pundits say it is "improbable" that she will win, trading on the skepticism with which many of her supporters view the media.

"I'm asking for you to come out and do what all of the pundits tell you is improbable: vote for the candidate with the best chance to defeat Obama," she said. "That's me."

But enthusiasm at the event, held at a local sports bar, seemed to be lower than it was at her appearances a few weeks prior. Tamara Scott, Bachmann's Iowa campaign co-chairwoman, attempted to pump up the crowd before Bachmann's entrance, with lackluster results. She asked the crowd to repeat after her a promise that they will caucus for Bachmann on Jan. 3. While many chimed in, their voices were soft and slow, despite Scott's urging.

"Say, 'January 3, I will show up at my caucus, I will take five friends' -- come on -- 'and I will work to get Michele Bachmann on the ballot.' Say it," Scott said. "'I will work to get Michele Bachmann on the ballot.' Say it."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is also campaigning hard in the final days before the caucus. He made an early morning appearance in Des Moines Friday before embarking on a full day of stops around the state. At the 7 a.m. breakfast appearance, Gingrich said he "can't do modern politics," attempting in advance to shake off the lackluster totals he is expected to pull in next week.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, speaking at a Marshalltown community center Thursday, attempted to take down the candidate who is now seen as most likely to join Paul and Romney in the top three slots: former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).

He spent the day attacking Santorum directly, after the candidate showed growing support in a poll released on Wednesday.

"I have great respect for Senator Santorum, but every now and then he talks about his fiscal conservatism and I kind of scratch my head," Perry said Thursday. "And I go, wait, senator, you're what I refer to as a prolific earmarker."

Perry pulled out a pen and waved it around to applause from the crowd, saying he would veto any legislation with earmarks that made it to his desk.

Perry's swipes at Santorum were seen as an attempt to keep the former senator's momentum down so that Perry can beat him in the race for third, and sources in the Perry camp acknowledged that a third-place finish that allows them to move on to fight again in South Carolina is the most achievable result they are hoping for.

But Chuck Laudner, Santorum's Iowa campaign director, said he does not think the race is limited to who can place third behind Romney and Paul. Laudner told The Huffington Post that he still thought it was possible for Santorum to win.

"Honestly I think it's still wide open," Laudner said. "Too many undecideds remaining to predict the order."

"Caucuses are won on momentum and enthusiasm. And we certainly have that," he said.

A Romney campaign official -- perhaps in an effort to tamp down expectations somewhat for Romney -- agreed with Laudner's assessment, noting that there was a lot of time between Thursday and Tuesday night for Santorum to build up a head of steam.

And there are still undecided Iowa voters, whose choices could cause unexpected results. Greg Holmes, a 45-year-old prison guard who lives in Marshalltown, attended events with Bachmann and Perry on Thursday. He said he is still undecided, although he thinks Romney, Bachmann and Perry are the most electable.

Until Tuesday he plans to read up on each candidate and see them when he can. He said he will make his choice at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, when the caucuses begin.

"When the night comes a lot of people are going to go with what's in their heart, so we might see a big change," he said. "It's not over until the fat lady sings."