In the Iowa caucuses, the tickets are the thing.
The state's first-in-the-nation presidential test doesn't get to crown a party's nominee, but it has a big say in who gets to keep walking the campaign trail.
When the television lights dim after the Jan. 3 caucuses — if history is any indication — a handful of candidates will be hopping on airplanes to New Hampshire, while others bid the race adieu.
Exactly who lands a ticket out of Iowa and onto the next campaign stop — and how many there might be — is unknown. Much depends on what's expected of the candidates and the final margin of victory. If the final four are closely bunched together, all four could go forward, said several political scientists.
"It's all an expectation game," said Art Sanders, a political scientist at Drake University. "Each candidate has something different that they have to do to move forward."
Mitt Romney doesn't want to be embarrassed in Iowa, but it's hard to envision a scenario where he's without a ticket. The former Massachusetts governor has done little to contest the state, and few expect him to win, but his focus has been on New Hampshire.
On the other hand, Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who has expended a lot of political resources in Iowa, needs a top-three finish to go forward, several said.
So, in the spirit of a good political horse race, here are a few things to consider as the six candidates competing in Iowa enter the home stretch of the caucuses — with the caveat that anything can happen in the final 16 days of the campaign. Remember, two months ago, Herman Cain was riding high in the polls.
» Ron Paul could win the caucuses. Yes, that's right. The Texas congressman barely considered a credible candidate by the national media has a fervent fan base in Iowa that could easily swamp the GOP caucuses.
By all accounts, Paul is expected to advance, no matter how he finishes. His candidacy is built as much around pushing a platform of limited government as pushing a candidacy. However, a Paul win could end up perceived by some nationally as a "quirk," giving more attention to the second- and third-place finishers, said Rachel Paine Caufield, a political scientist at Drake University.
» Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor has treated Iowa this year like a distant relative. He says nice things about the state but rarely visits. Instead, Romney has embraced New Hampshire as the start of his road to the nomination. Still, Iowa has its risks.
A "nightmare" scenario for Romney is a fourth-place finish, behind Paul, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.
The best-case scenario for Romney is a win. If that happens, he is going to look like an inevitable candidate, said Art Sanders, a political scientist at Drake.
» Newt Gingrich. The former House speaker is another candidate expected to survive Iowa, as long as he places near the top. Currently, Gingrich's support is surging in the state and on the national stage. A big question for him is whether he peaked too early in the race or whether he will maintain his momentum over the next several weeks.
» Rick Perry. The Texas governor is betting heavily on Iowa. He is running television advertisements asking Iowans to give him a "second chance" at a first impression — a candid acknowledgement that he stumbled badly after entering the race. He needs a strong third- or fourth-place finish to garner any momentum, although he may have the money to limp into New Hampshire after a poorer showing.
» Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann are in the same political boat. These cash-strapped candidates both have invested heavily in Iowa and both lag in the polls. They need strong second- or third-place finishes to survive. And it's hard to envision both going forward after Iowa.
"They will have to do well enough to be the lead story, whether that's winning or coming in second or third," said Sanders.
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