I checked in with a couple of political smart guys in Iowa to see how the Republican caucus electorate is viewing things. Craig Robinson of the Web publication Iowa Republican doesn’t think much of the prospects of either Herman Cain or Texas Gov. Rick Perry. At this stage, he tells me, “I’m confident in predicting that Mitt Romney and Ron Paul will get two of the three tickets out of Iowa. I just don’t know where they finish in the top three. There is a jump-ball for the final spot, in my opinion. And who knows? That person could finish in first place.” For that spot, he says, two candidates who aren’t at the top of the polls may come from behind. “I think the battle for the final spot could come down to [Rick] Santorum and [Newt] Gingrich, two of the most serious candidates in the race. Santorum has invested in a ground campaign, and while it might not be much, it’s more significant that what Gingrich and Cain have.”

A GOP insider who’s neutral in the race sees things similarly. He picks, as things currently stand, Romney, Gingrich and Paul, in that order. In the fourth through sixth spots he sees Santorum, Cain and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), with Perry finishing ahead of only Jon Huntsman, who’s not competing.

In other words, both of these Iowa political watchers think Cain has peaked and is receding, although public poll numbers haven’t yet registered a change.

It’s safe to say that if Perry finishes lower than third or fourth, he’s done, and moving on to South Carolina would be pointless. The Des Moines Register has tracked his downward slope. Jennifer Jacobs went back to nine caucus-goers who previously chose Perry as their top pick or named him as leading on one of two top issues. After the Michigan debate, opinions varied, from one woman who’s now dumping Perry to a Texas native who says she already knew he was a rotten debater. Some would still be open to considering him, but plainly the luster has come off his candidacy.

Interestingly, none of those respondents or my two Iowa political watchers think Bachmann has bounced back. Unless Bachmann can elevate herself back close to the top of the heap, her run probably ends in Iowa as well.

And what about Cain? As the leader in the polls for a time, a finish out of the money would come as a blow, signifying that he’s lost his status as a top-tier contender. He could certainly go on to the other contests, especially if he does have money in the bank as he claims. But he, too, would find it hard to do well if he can’t lead the pack in Iowa, a state almost tailor-made for him.

It’s been noted by Right Turn and others that Romney has the good fortune to face very flawed candidates. He’s luckier than that, actually. His opponents have been wounded by self-inflicted shots but have not collapsed entirely. Hence, his opposition as a whole is diminished, and they continue to cannibalize one another’s base of support. If Paul plus one or two other challengers make it out of Iowa, that situation will repeat itself in the other early primary states. In short, Romney is blessed to have tenacious but ineffective competitors.