In a state known more for clearing the field of losers than for picking the ultimate nominee, a strong finish means momentum, donations and a bright future. A poor showing means the end of the line.
“The old saying is there are three tickets out of Iowa,” said Tim Hagle, a veteran of Republican caucus campaigns who is now at the University of Iowa. “But it really depends on where you are expected to finish and whether you beat or fall short of expectations.”
Polls show national front-runner Mitt Romney, surging conservative Rick Santorum and wild-card libertarian Ron Paul battling for the top three spots.
Santorum’s fellow conservatives Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann would get a huge boost out of breaking into the top three, but Perry and Gingrich may be battling for a fourth-place finish that would at least give them an argument for continuing their campaigns.
Those in fifth or sixth place will face a stark reality.
“If you finish fifth or sixth, it’s hard to argue that you can still come back,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director for the state party.
A seventh presidential contender, Jon Huntsman, has skipped Iowa to focus on New Hampshire.
Here is a look at each of the six Republican candidates battling in Iowa’s kick-off nominating contest and their expectations, goals and future prospects.
No Republican candidate who wasn’t an incumbent president has ever won both Iowa and New Hampshire, and if Romney pulls off that one-two punch it could dry up donations for his rivals and start a move to rally around the party’s presumed nominee.
But Romney has the money and organization to survive even a third-place finish before the race heads to his political stronghold of New Hampshire, where he is well known and has a big lead in polls after serving as governor in neighboring Massachusetts.
“He’s going to live to fight another day no matter what,” Robinson said.
Romney, who is still distrusted by many conservatives because of his stances when he led liberal Massachusetts, is certain to face a challenger from the right in conservative South Carolina on Jan. 21.
But if he does not win in Iowa, Romney hopes Paul does, keeping the prize away from candidates with more establishment appeal or experience like Perry or Gingrich. He also hopes several conservatives do well enough to stay in the race and continue to split the conservative vote.
A win for the U.S. representative from Texas with the loyal army of followers would give him a huge boost heading into New Hampshire and later contests, including a series of February caucuses where the enthusiasm of his supporters can make a difference.
A second- or even third-place finish also keeps him alive, but might not have the same impact in media coverage. Paul finished a close second to Bachmann in Iowa’s August straw poll and was still widely ignored in the coverage of her victory.
Paul will never win over the party establishment, which sees his non-interventionist views on foreign policy and controversies over newsletters issued under his name in the 1990s with racial material as too far out of the mainstream.
“First place in Iowa will fire up his supporters, but second or third place will leave everyone saying ‘Well, that’s just Ron Paul,’” Robinson said.
The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania has all the momentum, according to recent polls, and a strong finish in the top three will give him a boost in fund raising that would help him compete, particularly in conservative South Carolina. It also could begin to consolidate fractured conservative support around one candidate.
But Santorum has a long way to go to reach equal financial footing with Romney or even Perry, and later states like Florida are big and expensive – not the ideal combination for a contender on a shoestring budget.
“A top finish in Iowa will be a huge boost for him, but it’s critical to see how much of that boost comes in donations,” Hagle said. “He’s done it the grass-roots way in Iowa, but he doesn’t have a strong national organization.”
Given his recent slide in polls, a third-place finish in Iowa would be a relief for the former U.S. House speaker. Fourth place or worse will raise questions about his campaign’s viability and probably continue to leave him short of donations.
Polls show Gingrich and Perry fighting for fourth place and both have vowed to stay in the race. They are trying to survive until the South Carolina contest on Jan. 21, where conservatives will have another chance to beat Romney and set up a one-on-one race for the nomination with him.
“He can use a fourth-place finish to stay in the race,” Hagle said. “But he won’t be the nominee with a fourth-place finish in Iowa.”
The Texas governor had money at one time – he raised $17 million in the third quarter to lead the field – but has spent heavily in the last few months, including $3 million or more in an Iowa advertising blitz in the last few weeks.
A top-three finish would probably open the fund-raising floodgates for Perry again, and his campaign says even a fourth-place finish could get him to South Carolina even if it does not fire up donors.
“To really open up that money spigot you need to finish in the top three,” Robinson said. “I don’t know a lot of donors who are fired up by fourth place.”
Bachmann, who was born in Iowa, has been plagued by staff defections and a lack of money and is expected to be the first candidate to drop out unless she performs far better than expected in Iowa.
She has put all of her effort into Iowa and winning its big bloc of religious and social conservatives.
But polls show Bachmann, who peaked with her August straw poll victory, mired in last place and on life support.
“She just needs to beat somebody,” Robinson said. “I have a hard time seeing her move forward after this, but beating somebody would be big for her.”