There are less than two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, but in reality after today there are about six days for candidates to get the voters’ attention. On Christmas and New Year’s weekends it’s difficult, if not impossible, to engage in retail politics, although ads will continue to run. That leaves Dec. 26-30 and Jan. 2. (The 30th will be a tough day to attract voters, given the two football bowl games that day involving Iowa and Iowa State.) Not much time, is it?
That is not to say there aren’t things to keep an eye on in the days leading up to the first presidential contest. Ten in particular stand out.
1. The final Des Moines Register poll. Traditionally released on the Sunday before the caucuses, it is far and away the most reliable predictor of the caucuses’ results.
2. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). He’s the only major figure whose endorsement might still be coming. It would be a considerable lift for a candidate such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) or Rick Santorum.
3. The anti-Paul drumbeat. It’s been long in coming, but now the mainstream and conservative media have begun focusing on the untenable aspects of Rep. Ron Paul’s views and his unsavory connection to racist newsletters and the John Birch Society. (“Oh, my goodness, the John Birch Society! Is that bad? I have lots of friends in the John Birch Society.”)
4. Gingrich outbursts. The most damaging moments in the race for Newt Gingrich have been his attacks on Rep Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), his anti-capitalist assault on Mitt Romney’s Bain experience and his radical plans to bend the judiciary to his will. If he has any more, his descent in the polls will only accelerate.
5. Gov. Terry Branstad. The Iowa governor has said he won’t endorse, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be commenting. He’s already questioned whether Gingrich has the focus and discipline to be president. Yesterday, he chided Gingrich for getting off message and obsessing about negative ads. He may not endorse, but he could well make things more difficult for certain candidates.
6. Santorum surge. Rick Santorum has done everything right in the race. He spent time in Iowa, held to solidly conservative views especially on social issues, got the backing of many church leaders and made no errors in the final debates. If that investment has paid off, we will see larger crowds, more favorable media chatter and some movement in the polls. He remains a dangerous dark-horse candidate who could knock better-known and -funded candidates from the race.
7. Romney bus tour. He’s planning a three-day swing through Iowa next week, his final chance to close the deal and perhaps shorten a lengthy and bruising primary process. Watch his crowds and see how he deals with questions from the media and voters. If he is gaffe free, confident and engaging he may wind up in a far better position than his campaign could have imagined only a few weeks ago.
8. The Paul air war. His TV attack, principally aimed at Gingrich, has been effective and eye-catching. Gingrich complains about negative ads but has yet to identify specific false statements. That’s because Paul has used Gingrich’s own words. You can’t get more bullet-proof than that.
9. Bachmann bus tour. Like Santorum, she has played by the traditional Iowa rules, winning the Ames Straw Poll and spending time in the state practicing retail politics. She’s been an effective critic of Gingrich, but now she has to energize her troops and get them to the polls. So far her bus tour has attracted enthusiastic crowds. If that keeps up she has a chance to finish strongly and go on to New Hampshire and, more important, South Carolina.
10. The evangelical vote. So far, to the relief of the Romney campaign, social conservatives have been unable to agree on a single candidate. Their support has fractured among Bachmann, Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Church leaders not only can lend credence to a candidate’s social conservative bona fides, but can also turn out congregants. If a series of church leaders, home-school groups and pro-life activists begin to line up behind one candidate, that likely will be reflected on caucus night.