An advisor from one of the presidential campaigns speculated, “There are three tickets out of Iowa.” That may be true for some candidates who are not necessarily expected to win there, but for those whose fate rests on winning there, building momentum and going on to win, most likely, in South Carolina it is critical to finish at the top of the pack.

A look at the RealClearPolitics average polling suggests the candidate most at risk is Texas Gov. Rick Perry. While he is in the teens in national polling, he is in single digits where voters are paying the most attention. In Iowa, he now trails everyone except Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman. It’s fair to say that a finish in the middle of the pack would be near fatal for him, given that his standing in New Hampshire is also so poor. (The RCP average has him at just over four percent.) Moreover, if he finishes behind Santorum, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) or Herman Cain it will be hard to stop one of them from becoming the most viable not-Romney player. Perhaps only Santorum has more to lose than Perry in Iowa.

Then there is Mitt Romney, who was in Iowa on Thursday. His advisors insist that there will no full-court press to win Iowa, but that doesn’t mean Romney won’t “play” there. That means he would like to win, he might win, but he can’t push expectations up so high that a loss would be damaging. It’s a tricky balance, to be sure. But working in Romney’s favor, ironically, is a lot of money and time thought to have been wasted in Iowa in 2008. One longtime supporter refers to that as an “investment” in cultivating support and goodwill there. It’s those Iowans who liked him in 2008 and remain committed to him now that he hopes will turn out in droves on caucus night.

For Cain, Santorum and Bachmann a win or a very strong showing is essential. Bachmann, at one time the front-runner there, is now well back in the pack. The saving grace is that a finish in the top three might be regarded as a “comeback.”

Cain has raised expectations, making his lead in some early polls a liability rather than an asset. If he fails to win or come close in a state thought to be ideal for him, it’s hard to see where he could win elsewhere, especially given his modest funding and complete lack of organization in other states. That may explain why he has taken on Iowa veteran Steve Grubbs.He wasted no time in spinning the line that Cain’s lack of organization wasn’t much of a handicap because other candidates are light on organization as well. Perhaps that is true of some candidates, but Santorum and Bachmann have been work hard and visiting frequently.

As for Santorum, a place in the top three would give him much needed credibility as a contender and, most likely, an injection of cash. He therefore has more than anyone to gain from Cain’s stumbles. Fortunately for him, there is plenty of material to work with.