A week from now there will be actual Republican results to mull over in Iowa. The polls and pundits momentarily will mean less than the voters. (The pundits will then take over again, or so they think, “interpreting” results they didn’t predict. Only weathermen can remain as inaccurate and stay in business.)

I’m asked frequently who I think will win in Iowa. Frankly, I’ve given up trying to predict this race’s twists and turns. I’ll share a few of the responses from others closer to the action of whom I asked to predict the first, second and third-place finishers.

An experienced GOP pollster says he doesn’t know yet if there’s been further negative impact on Newt Gingrich from his failure to qualify for the Virginia ballot or on Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) from scrutiny of his conspiracy-filled and racist newsletters. He says if he had to guess today it would be a dead heat for first between Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), then Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). In brief he says, reading movement in the race: “Santorum up, Newt down.”

Craig Robinson of the Iowa Republican has this take:

There are five candidates to follow. Mitt Romney and Ron Paul are holding steady. Newt Gingrich is falling, and the Ricks (Santorum and Perry) are rising. I don’t see anything that will break Gingrich’s fall. So that means either Santorum or Perry are in my top three. Right now I’d take the guy with grassroots movement, which is Santorum. If the caucuses were held tomorrow, I’d go Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, and then Santorum.

George Will, Cokie Roberts, Ed Gillespie and Jonathan Karl on ABC’s “This Week” had four different predictions: Romney, Paul, Santorum and even Bachmann. Take your pick.

The commonality in all of this is the perception that Gingrich is sliding and Santorum is rising. That could be. Or maybe Bachmann comes in as the dark horse. Or maybe Paul’s supporters turn out to be less adept at caucus logistics than expected. But let’s for a moment consider that Santorum makes the top three and Gingrich doesn’t.

Santorum will then enjoy a burst of enthusiasm, a flood of money and a trip on the 2012 primary escalator. Unlike Gingrich, Santorum is personally stable and can credibly hold the title of “consistent conservative.” Unlike Herman Cain, Santorum knows a great deal about foreign policy and actually understands how D.C. works. In other words, things would get very interesting.

If Santorum makes it to the top three (again, I’m not predicting, just following out the hypothetical), Bachmann and Perry have no viable path forward. They might stay until South Carolina, but other than deprecating the entire Iowa process (it would help them if Paul won, thereby giving the Iowa caucuses an air of wackiness), they’ll have a tough time hanging in there. If Perry or Bachmann comes in third, this sequence plays out similarly. In other words, if any one of the three comes in third, the other two are wiped out.

If Gingrich isn’t in the top three his campaign in all likelihood is caput. The same might even be said if he limps into third place. After leading in Iowa by double digits, getting slammed by his own record and then failing to demonstrate he’s got a decent organization (in Iowa or Virginia or most any place else) it would be hard to see a path to victory for him.

In a week we’ll have actual winners and losers to look at. But keep your eye on third place; that might be the most important consideration in shaping what follows Iowa.