The Des Moines Register reports:

Iowa’s top Republicans are clinging to an early January caucus date even though a big uncertainty looms about New Hampshire’s primary schedule.

Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Matt Strawn envisions a scenario where Iowa would hold its caucuses on Jan. 5, five days before a possible New Hampshire primary.

But he has made no promises and says the Iowa GOP may even move head and schedule its caucuses before New Hampshire announces when it has scheduled its primary, to alleviate tension to organizers and campaigns caused by the calendar uncertainties.

Those who want to protect Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status understand that a sure-fire way to alienate the party, the media and all the candidates would be to have a December caucus date. Even early January, of course, would leaves candidates and the press stomping through Iowa at the holidays and struggling to catch the voters’ attention between office parties, visits from the relatives and shopping at the mall.

Yesterday, Rick Santorum voiced considerable dissatisfaction to me about a series of quick, early contests. Yes, ostensibly this benefits those already well known. But here is the thing: If a candidate hasn’t been to Iowa in a month and isn’t scheduled to return soon (Herman Cain) or sticks to the major cities (Texas Gov. Rick Perry) they are now at a disadvantage. It’s a cliche because it’s true: If caucus voters haven’t seen a candidate multiple times they aren’t likely to support him or her.

This helpful chart from the Des Moines Register tracks the number of days candidates have been there. Santorum is way ahead with 58 days in the state, followed by Rep. Michele Bachmann (42), and Newt Gingrich (39).

Those who are serious about competing in Iowa now need to make some scheduling choices. Do they spend time in Iowa or make a token appearance and head for other states? Perry has spent six days in the state. Is he serious about winning? If so, he’ll need to start making the rounds to county after county. And if he is not doing that, can he afford to come in behind a candidate with much less money and visibility?

Iowa is, like most of the nominating contests, a game of expectations. Bachmann can’t very well say she isn’t trying or hasn’t spent time there. A third-place finish might be survivable; anything less likely isn’t. But Perry, conversely, is going to face a near-fatal blow if he comes in behind any of the candidates other than Romney or Cain. And speaking of Cain, the air will certainly go out of his sails if the Christian conservative and Tea Party favorite doesn’t finish in the top couple of spots. How else is he supposed to be the not-Romney champion?

Much of what the national media focus on is irrelevant, if not terribly misleading when it comes to these early states. Whether Cain is at 8 percent or 20 percent in a national poll matters much less than if he goes 30 or 45 days between visits. And Perry’s biggest quandary may now be: Does he go after Cain? After all, if he finishes behind him less than 90 days from now, isn’t he headed back to Austin?