Mitt Romney, Iowa frontrunner

at 09:30 AM ET, 12/30/2011

It’s been a long, strange trip for Mitt Romney in Iowa, but with just days left before the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, the former Massachusetts governor is the odds-on bet to claim victory in the Hawkeye State.


Former Massachusetts Governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters during a campaign event at J's Homestyle Cooking December 29, 2011 in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
That Romney sits atop the Iowa field — and two new polls (here and here) confirm that status — heading into the final weekend speaks to just how odd a race this has been so far.

For most of the Iowa campaign, Romney ignored the state. He skipped the allegedly predictive Ames Straw Poll and, heading into the final weeks of the race, had made only seven visits to the state.

While Romney kept Iowa at arm’s length, a cavalcade of conservative alternatives to him rose and fell — starting with Rep. Michele Bachmann and running all the way through former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

Romney bided his time, wary of exerting too much time and, more importantly, money in a state that he had dumped $10 million into four years ago, only to finish a distant second behind former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

In many ways, Romney’s caution was warranted, as he is still viewed skeptically by the state’s sizeable social conservative community.

But unlike four years ago, when Huckabee united social conservatives behind his candidacy, the evangelical vote has been and almost certainly will continue to be splintered between the other five candidates running active campaigns in Iowa this time around. (Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman is skipping Iowa to focus on New Hampshire.)

What’s happened then is a sort of bifurcated Iowa caucus. Everyone not named Romney is trying to be the social conservative/tea party darling. Romney alone is going for the establishment Republican vote.

Romney has consolidated that vote — probably good for around 25 percent on caucus night — while the other candidates continue to pummel one another in hopes of seizing the social conservative slot in the race. There’s still some time for that to happen (four days to be exact), but if no one has been able to coalesce social conservatives in Iowa yet, why would it happen now?

Below is our look at the Iowa caucus field. The candidate ranked No. 1 (Romney) is considered the most likely to emerge victorious on Tuesday night.

To the Line!

6. Michele Bachmann: It’s amazing to think that the winner of the Ames Straw Poll could well be headed to a last-place finish in the Iowa caucuses.

But, that’s the reality that the Minnesota congresswoman has to face, as the Ames win wound up being the high point of her campaign. The same day she won the straw poll, Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the field — and stole all of Bachmann’s momentum. By the time Perry flamed out, it was too late for Bachmann.

She has struggled mightily to raise money — surprising given her success on that front as a House member — and the Kent Sorenson debacle seemed like an unfortunately fitting symbol of her fleeting Iowa hopes.

5. Newt Gingrich: Even when the former speaker was soaring in Iowa, there was a sense in the political community that it couldn’t last. After all, Gingrich’s three decades in public office amounted to an opposition researcher’s dream, and it was only a matter of time before the onslaught began. And begin it did.

Led by “Restore Our Future” — a super PAC aligned with Romney — and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a furious negative barrage pummeled Gingrich over the past three weeks — an onslaught that has done him irreparable damage.

Gingrich’s biggest problem wasn’t the negative ads, though. It was his inability/unwillingness to hit back. Gingrich’s ad buys were far smaller than those of his main rivals and his pledge not to go negative proved, for the billionth time, that a negative attack unanswered is a negative attack believed.

4. Rick Perry: We decided to leap-frog Perry over Gingrich for one reason: money. Perry, as well as his aligned super PAC, have spent massive sums on television ads in Iowa and will continue to do so right through caucus night.

While the momentum among evangelicals seems to have moved to former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, the Texas governor remains a viable option for social conservative voters who are still looking for someone to be for.

Perry’s performance on the trail — and the debate stage — earlier this fall seems to have foreclosed the possibility that he will be a top-tier candidate in the race. To continue on as a relevant member of the field, he probably needs to break into the top three, which, at the moment, looks possible if not probable.

3. Rick Santorum: Santorum, long mocked as the only candidate who never got a spark in Iowa, may be having the last laugh. His surge into third place in a CNN/Time poll suggests he is the last flavor of the moment for social conservatives and evangelicals in the state.

As we wrote Thursday, it’s hard to see Santorum cracking the top two on caucus night, but he may not need to. Iowa is all about over-performing expectations, and if Santorum really does wind up in the “show” spot on Jan. 3, he will have won himself a shot in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

2. Ron Paul: We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Ron Paul can win the Iowa caucuses.

Paul probably has the hardest ceiling of any of the candidates. His views — particularly on foreign policy — put him way outside the mainstream of the Republican Party and make it hard for him to pick up support from rank-and-file GOPers still looking for a candidate.

That means that for Paul to win, he needs to a) turn out all of his loyalists, which shouldn’t be a problem given their devotion to him, and b) expand the caucus electorate with non-Republicans who register on the day of the caucuses. Knowing whether Paul can pull the latter off is virtually impossible but, aside from possibly Romney, the Texas Republican has the best organization in the state.

A Paul Iowa win would be a HUGE news story, but likely wouldn’t change the dynamic of the overall race much, as it’s virtually impossible to imagine him as the Republican nominee in 2012.

1. Mitt Romney: If Romney wins Iowa, his chances of winning the nomination increase dramatically.

An Iowa victory would give Romney a major burst of momentum heading into the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary where he has had held a steady (and quite wide) lead for months.

Back-to-back wins might not seal the deal for Romney, but it would come darn close to doing just that. (Worth noting: No non-incumbent Republican candidate has won both Iowa and New Hampshire.)

If Romney does win Iowa and New Hampshire, the 11 days between the Granite State primary and the South Carolina primary would be filled with GOP establishment types doing everything they can to judge the race over and declare Romney as the winner. His rivals could obviously ignore that chatter, but it wouldn’t be easy. At all.

 
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