It's just a week-and-a-half before the Iowa caucuses, the January 3 first-in-the-nation contest that can set a candidate on the road to the nomination - or effectively end the candidacy of a candidate who fails to win Iowans' hearts.
The candidates are
Michele Bachmann: It might be hard to remember now, but Bachmann was considered a frontrunner for the nomination after she
Bachmann has been campaigning feverishly in Iowa - the state where she was born - engaging in a 99 county bus tour that has taken her to every corner of the state. To keep her presidential hopes alive, she'll need a stronger-than-expected finish that allows her to plausibly claim the mantle of the consensus candidate of social conservatives. Bachmann is polling in the high single digits in Iowa in recent surveys, slightly behind another candidate angling for social conservative votes, Rick Perry; if she doesn't finish ahead of the Texas governor, it's hard to see how she stays in the race much longer.
Rick Santorum: Santorum, like Bachmann, is fighting to become the consensus choice of social conservatives in order to keep his cash-strapped candidacy alive. He got a boost in that effort this week when influential
Still, Santorum faces a serious uphill climb. He's one of the only candidates to never have seen a surge in the race, raising questions about the broadness of his appeal, even among Republicans. And it doesn't help that he is one of three candidates - along with Bachmann and Rick Perry - who are both targeting social conservatives and are now focused almost exclusively on Iowa. Santorum's best hope is that the Iowa social conservative network that rallied around Mike Huckabee in the 2008 cycle decides to throw its unified weight behind Santorum in an effort to keep either the thrice-married Newt Gingrich or Romney from becoming the GOP nominee.
Newt Gingrich: Gingrich spent about one week as the clear frontrunner for the nomination before a barrage of negative ads against him in Iowa reversed his momentum. He's now polling behind both Romney and Ron Paul in the Hawkeye State, and has fallen back into a tie with Romney in national polls.
If Gingrich can't reverse the trend before January 3, he'll feed into the narrative being pushed by a pro-Romney super PAC running a torrent of anti-Gingrich ads: That the former House Speaker makes such an easy target that he can't win in a general election. (Or, as the super PAC put it, he's got too much "baggage.") Gingrich is arguing that his largely positive campaign - and his shaming of his rivals for the attack ads - will translate into support on January 3; if it doesn't, concerns about his electability will harden into conventional wisdom.
Ron Paul: The Libertarian Texas lawmaker is the surprise frontrunner to win the caucuses, thanks in part to the fact that the field is so fractured that 25 percent support may well be good enough for a victory. Paul has the youngest and most passionate supporters of any of the GOP candidates (though it doesn't help that the caucuses fall when many college students will be on their winter break) as well as the best ground game in the state, thanks to his 2008 presidential campaign and the organization that sprung up in its wake.
Paul remains a long shot for the nomination, thanks in part to a non-interventionist foreign policy that nearly one in two Republicans calls a major reason to oppose his candidacy. But if he wins the caucuses, it becomes a lot harder for the national media - and the Republican Party - to treat him as such. In 2008, Paul held an alternate convention after the GOP denied him a speaking slot at its nominating convention. A caucus win would make such a snub impossible in 2012 - and could set the stage for a party-transforming run at the nomination.
Rick Perry: The Texas governor is making a "oops" moment heard round the world. Perry in polls of Iowa voters in August, shortly after entering the race, but has since fallen to the high single digits.
Perry has one big advantage on Bachmann and Santorum, the two candidates with whom he is competing for social conservative votes: A war chest that allows him to blanket the state with television ads. (His finish here will provide a big clue as to the degree to which paid media really matters.) If he doesn't do well here, he will be hard pressed to make the case that he still belongs in the race. That said, his war chest means he could probably do so anyway - and, potentially, start to pick up steam once the primary process shifts to the South.
Mitt Romney: Romney has done a good job managing expectations about Iowa; even if he finishes second to Paul, it's not going to result in a lot of negative press for the former Massachusetts governor. Romney has not campaigned nearly as aggressively in Iowa as he did in 2008 - when Huckabee's win proved a major embarrassment - though he has had his team working to ensure that he still makes a respectable showing.
There are two nightmare outcomes for Romney: One, a Gingrich victory that reinvigorates the former House speaker's seemingly-flagging campaign, and two, a finish low enough that it prompts a new wave of stories about how little most Republicans seem to actually like Mitt Romney. Anything else will be good enough to get Romney to New Hampshire with relative ease, where the stakes for the ostensible frontrunner for the nomination are far higher.
Jon Huntsman: The former Utah governor has elected to ignore Iowa, concluding that he had little chance to compete there. That would seem to be a good calculus: He's at just four percent in the polls in the state. Huntsman's long shot bid is almost entirely focused on New Hampshire, but that doesn't mean he won't be paying close attention to what happens on January 3. If Romney takes a serious hit in Iowa, it could open the door for a surprise Huntsman victory in the Granite State - and kick start a campaign that has yet to really get off the ground.