Countdown to Des Moines

As Iowa Republicans take the first step in the quadrennial presidential nomination process—and the whole world watches—there is no shortage of observations from the punditocracy and those of us reporters who will actually report on the first-in-the-nation presidential vote.

Here are some of the most-asked questions about Iowa and how the Hawkeye State looks on the eve of the “Iowa caucus:”

Who Will Win?

With just about every poll showing three contenders bunched together in terms of support, it is hard to say.

Perhaps fearing that a Ron Paul win might lead their state to be taken less seriously as a “first in the nation” barometer of the nominating process and never fully embracing Newt Gingrich, many Iowa GOPers are embracing Mitt Romney in the final days –possibly because they feel he is, to use a phrase of H.L. Mencken, “the least worst candidate.”

Although Gingrich State Campaign Chairman and former Iowa Rep. Greg Ganske steadfastly insisted to this reporter that “the Iowa caucuses aren’t over yet” for his man Newt, it is difficult not to ponder otherwise.  The former House speaker has been subjected to $10 million in attack advertising (with the Campaign Analysis Media Research Group estimating that 45% of negative commercials run in Iowa since December have been those directed at Gingrich.  The evidence that anti-Gingrich broadsides are taking their toll is in the most recent Rasmussen, Insider Advantage, and AMR polls show the Georgian dropping from first to third place and struggling for third with “late bloomer” Rick Santorum.

All told, Romney and Paul have the most to gain by winning Iowa and the least to lose.  A Romney win there, followed by an almost-sure victory in the New Hampshire primary January 10, will give the former Massachusetts governor near-unstoppable momentum for the nomination.  A second-place showing will not have much effect on his most-favored status in the Granite State.

A Paul triumph in Iowa will surely embolden the libertarian Republican’s followers nationwide.  A second-place showing won’t discourage the “Paul-tard” platoons any more than the Texas congressman’s second-place showing at the Ames (Iowa) “straw poll” earlier this year.  He and they will be around as long as Paul wants to be a candidate.

Who Will Lose?

Four Republicans aside from Romney and Paul stand to lose considerably by failing to place one-two in the caucuses.

Gingrich, who placed so much on an Iowa win, has little backing in New Hampshire.  Even if he manages to build a campaign infantry in the South Carolina primary later in January, he may be so weakened that it won’t matter what he does in the Palmetto state.

Santorum certainly and Rick Perry perhaps might surprise some folks Tuesday.  But the obvious question is where does each go from Iowa?  Former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum is too cash-strapped to wage a fighting campaign in New Hampshire.  While Perry has the cash, the Texan has so far failed to put together a “ground game” in New Hampshire or anywhere else.

Betting is strong that Michele Bachmann will be the major casualty of the caucuses in her state of birth.  Constituents and party chieftains in Minnesota’s Sixth U.S. House District are growing impatient over her refusal to say whether she’ll seek re-election to Congress.  Democrats are reportedly anxious to run a campaign against Bachmann in Minnesota featuring her caucus commercial in which she proclaims: “I am an Iowan.”  Whether she runs again or leaves politics for a Fox TV commentator’s position, Bachmann will most likely have to make a major decision soon—very likely, on January 4.

No one cares how Jon Huntsman will perform in Iowa Tuesday–least of all Huntsman himself, the former Utah governor having all but written off the state in pursuit of votes in New Hampshire.

Are “Values Voters” Still a Big Factor in Iowa?

Very much so, but not as much as one may think.  In a state where polls show more than half of likely caucus-goers consider themselves “born again” Christians, a candidate ignores them at his or her own risk.

But it historically takes many of those voters and then some others to win or even score impressively in the caucus.  In 1996, Pat Buchanan almost upset Midwesterner Bob Dole in the caucuses with strong backing from evangelical conservatives along with his fellow traditional Roman Catholics (a force in several cities in Iowa). Speaking at a press breakfast of the Christian Science Monitor after his ’08 campaign, Mike Huckabee proudly recalled that he won big in Iowa that year with the support of blue-collar and lower-income voters as well as “values voters.”  Huckabee particularly noted that one supporter who sent him small donations regularly was a non-church goer.

Santorum, then, might do well because of recent blessings from key Iowa evangelical leaders, notably ’08 Huckabee campaign chief Bob Vander Plaatz.  But it will take more than that to catapult him to a win.

Will Iowa Remain “First in the Nation” After Tuesday?

This comes up all the time among those of us who cover the caucuses, and Iowa pols who are worried that a win by a controversial contender such as Ron Paul will somehow lead national party leaders to permit other states to move ahead of theirs in the presidential calendar.

Perhaps the best answer comes from Craig Tufty, a veteran of Iowa GOP politics who also knows a bit about his home state’s trends from years of running the much-watched “Iowa Poll.”

“If Iowa were not first,”  he responded, “That would mean a lot of you guys in the press would have to develop new contacts in other states you can call on months before the election year, find new hotels to stay in, and better steakhouses—although I’m not sure that’s possible.

“Iowa not first in the nation?  Don’t even think about it!”