With the Ames Straw Poll in the rearview mirror, Texas Gov. Rick Perry now in the Republican presidential race and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty out of it, the basic outlines of the fight for the party’s nomination are becoming clearer.

But questions remain about how the candidates will withstand the scrutiny they will face in the coming months and whether anyone — cough, Sarah Palin, cough — will join them anytime soon.

Here’s our look at the knowns and the unknowns in the 2012 contest.


● The top tier: Perry, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) have distanced themselves from the rest of the field. Bachmann is a clear favorite in Iowa, while Romney is a solid leader in New Hampshire. Perry is running competitively with Bachmann and Romney in national primary polling and, if his early travel schedule is any indication, will contest each of the three early-voting states — with South Carolina being an obvious place where he might make a mark. The distance between Romney/Perry/Bachmann and the rest of the candidates — from a name identification, polling and resources perspective — is significant and likely to grow.

● Confrontation is good: The lesson that Pawlenty’s struggles taught us is that the Republican primary electorate is less focused on someone who produces results based on compromise than someone who is willing to take the fight to President Obama always and everywhere. Voters, particularly Republicans, are mad about the direction of the country and are not in a compromising mood. Misunderstanding that sentiment cost Pawlenty his chance to make a serious run for the nomination. Those who are still in the race won’t make that mistake.

Ron Paul isn’t going away: The congressman from Texas isn’t a leading candidate, but beyond Perry, Romney and Bachmann, he may be the one who will raise the most money and perform best in all of the early states. Paul’s near-miss at the Ames Straw Poll — he received three times as many votes on Saturday as he had in the same poll four years earlier — suggests that his support is growing. And that means he will be a factor — whether a major or a minor one remains to be seen — to be dealt with for all of the top candidates in states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.


● How does Perry play?: The governor is riding high in polls and looks like a genius for waiting until now to declare his candidacy. But the history of late entrants in recent presidential races — think Wes Clark in 2004 and Fred Thompson in 2008 — suggests that the best day for some of these candidates is the first one. And anyone watching Perry’s announcement address in South Carolina on Saturday was reminded of just how unapologetically Southern he is. (Perry drops “G’s” from words like a champ.) Although the history of Southerners in the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary is encouraging for Perry, if the nomination fight drags on to other parts of the country, it’s not entirely clear how he would sell.

● Calendar chaos: Almost no Republican we talked to in Iowa over the past four days thought that the GOP nominating calendar — with Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina being the only states voting in February — would hold up. Moving those states a month forward and adding Arizona and Florida to the mix could majorly alter the candidates’ victory paths — perhaps forcing them to choose from that handful of states to try to emerge as the nominee.

● WWPD (What Will Palin Do?): Like her or not, no one in the Republican Party — not even Bachmann — draws a crowd like the former Alaska governor. At the Iowa State Fair last week, Palin was mobbed by people hoping to snap a picture (of her or with her) or to get an autograph. Whether those people are simply drawn to her celebrity or whether they would be committed Palin voters is next to impossible to gauge. But Palin has “it” and if decides to run, the race will revolve around her — at least in the early days of her candidacy.