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Four weeks to go: Who'll take the Iowa caucuses?

Newt Gingrich , Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Ron Paul headshots over iowa state flag

On a chilly evening about four weeks from now, Iowa Republicans will take to the potentially-snowy roads of the Hawkeye State to drive to their designated caucus site and throw their support behind a presidential candidate.

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-goersout 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:

Newt Gingrich Iowa caucas

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.

Full CBS News coverage: Newt Gingrich

Why most republicans dont like Romney
Former Gov. Mitt Romney Gage Skidmore via Flickr

The long hauler: Mitt Romney: Romney has flirted with Iowa for months, trying to figure out how hard to contest a state where he suffered a humiliating loss in 2008 despite spending millions. The state's evangelical-majority GOP electorate makes it a bad fit for Romney, but if the conservative vote splits between multiple candidates, Romney could considerably emerge victorious with less than 30 percent of the vote. Couple that with a strong win in New Hampshire a week later, and Romney could potentially lock up the nomination early.

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.

Full CBS News coverage: Mitt Romney

The spoiler: Ron Paul: Paul, like Romney, would seem to have a ceiling in Iowa - and, like Romney, he could nonetheless potentially win the state with less than 30 percent if his rivals sufficiently split the vote. Paul's die-hard supporters are going to show up no matter how hard the snow is falling, and he has one of the best organizations in the state; he's also doing his part to bring down the frontrunner, going on-air with a previously web only anti-Gingrich ad accusing the former speaker of "serial hypocrisy."

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.

Full CBS News coverage: Ron Paul

Republican presidential hopeful U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., speaks during the Iowa Republican Party's Ronald Reagan Dinner, Friday, Nov. 4, 2011, in Des Moines, Iowa. Michele Bachmann, Iowa

The sleeper: Michele Bachmann: The CBS/NYT poll showed a boost for Bachmann with the departure of Herman Cain from the race, with her support jumping from four percent to nine percent. Bachmann, who hails from Iowa and has been aggressively campaigning in the state, was identified by more poll respondents than any other candidate as best for sharing their values and promotes conservative principles.

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.

Full CBS News coverage: Michele Bachmann

Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during a stop in Jackson, Miss. Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011. AP

The spender: Rick Perry The Texas governor was supposed to be the consensus anti-Romney candidate - until a series of gaffes and poor debate performances, culminating in the infamous "oops" moment, pushed his national poll numbers into the single digits. Perry has a secret weapon that most of his rivals lack, however: A massive war chest (thanks to his deep-pocketed Texas donor network) that allows him to try to spend his way back into contention.

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.

Full CBS News coverage: Rick Perry

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, former Pennsylvania Sen., speaks at the CBS News/National Journal foreign policy debate at the Benjamin Johnson Arena, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011 in Spartanburg, S.C. Santorum said he would continue to hold terror suspects at the military prison at Guantanamo. AP Photo/Richard Shiro

The other guys: Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum: Huntsman long ago gave up on Iowa, opting instead to focus his long-shot campaign on New Hampshire, where the electorate is more receptive to his moderation on some social issues. Santorum, pictured at left, has campaigned aggressively in the state. But his candidacy has not caught fire - he was at just four percent in the CBS/NYT poll - and he doesn't have the money to do anything in these last few weeks other than trust in retail politics to turn things around.

MORE: Special report: Election 2012

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