Four weeks to go: Who'll take the Iowa caucuses?
The outcome of the January 3 contest can have a tremendous impact on a presidential race, with implications for media coverage, fundraising and momentum that can boost a candidate (see Barack Obama, 2008) or effectively force him or her out of the race.
The CBS News/New York Times poll of Iowa caucus-goers out this week offered a snapshot of where things stand in the horserace: Newt Gingrich led the pack with 31 percent support from likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers, followed by Mitt Romney at 16 percent and Ron Paul at 16 percent. But there are a number of factors that could still shake up the race, and plenty of time for them to take effect. Below, our take on where things stand today:
The frontrunner: Newt Gingrich The CBS News/NYT survey confirmed that Gingrich, whose campaign was left for dead over the summer, is on the verge of a caucus win that would confirm a remarkable political comeback. Thanks to the backing of Iowa Tea Partiers and white evangelicals, the former House speaker is well positioned to use a caucus victory to consolidate the anti-Romney conservative vote and effectively narrow the presidential contest into a two-man race.
Yet there is plenty of room left for Gingrich to stumble. Many political observers are awaiting a Gingrich crash they see as inevitable, either from a self-inflicted would (which few familiar with Gingrich's career would see as a surprise) or as a result of attack ads from rivals and the SuperPACs that support them. Remember, Gingrich hasn't been the frontrunner for long, which means his rivals have had little incentive to try to take him down. That's no longer the case.
The other issue for Gingrich is that his campaign, which until fairly recently had been unable to do much in terms of fundraising, is far behind when it comes to organization. CBS News stopped into Gingrich's Iowa office this week and it was very much a work in progress, with the phones for the phone bank not even up and running. And it's not clear that his team will be able to mobilize precinct captains around the state, who are crucial to maximizing caucus support. Meanwhile, Gingrich has to spend his time in places like New York and Washington fundraising to catch up to his rivals, which leaves him little time to do much in the state in terms of retail politics.
Yet if Romney makes a hard push in Iowa and struggles - he could potentially finish as low as fifth - it deals a serious blow to the "inevitable candidate" narrative his team has tried to build. Romney said Tuesday that after a week more of fundraising, his team will "spend almost all of our time in New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, Florida, a couple of other states." That doesn't sound a signal that Romney is going to make a hard push. With Gingrich looking strong - he had a 14-point edge in the CBS/NYT poll - look for Romney to play down Iowa expectations and focus on maintaining his advantage in New Hampshire. Still, he's running ads in the state- the focus is on his family - and maintaining a strong behind-the-scenes effort in an attempt to, at the very least, keep things respectable.
The Texas lawmaker with strong libertarian leanings will remain a long-shot for the nomination if he pulls off an upset victory; the very views that make him so appealing to his fervent supporters seem to turn off a majority of Republican voters. (In a recent Gallup poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 62 percent said Paul would be an unacceptable nominee - tying him with Rick Santorum as the candidate deemed most unacceptable.) But at the very least an Iowa victory would force media outlets to pay more attention to Paul and his ideas.
That suggests that support for Bachmann - the only woman in the race - may well be stronger than the polls now suggest. If Gingrich starts to bleed support - he was the other significant beneficiary of Cain's departure - it could very well shift largely to Bachmann, whose social conservatism makes her a good match with Iowa's majority-evangelical Republican electorate. Don't be shocked if Bachamann, who has fallen off the radar after winning the Iowa caucuses in August, is able to make a campaign-boosting splash on caucus day.
Perry is spending more than $1 million on a last minute ad blitz in Iowa, offering up flashback-style spots which make a culture war attack on President Obama. ("I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian, but you don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.") Those ads will be buffeted with spots from a SuperPAC supporting Perry, which is expected to blanket the airwaves as well. With the CBS/NYT poll showing two-thirds of Iowa GOP voters haven't made up their minds, Perry's ad blitz could potentially win over enough caucus-goers to reinvigorate what has been a struggling campaign.
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