For Rick Perry, It's Fourth Place or Bust

A third- or fourth-place finish in Iowa likely best hope for the one-time front-runner.

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For someone once considered a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, times sure have changed for Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Heading into the Iowa Caucuses, a win seems all but impossible for Perry—and, likely, a third- or fourth-placed finish is a best-case scenario for keeping his campaign alive.

"There are probably four tickets out of Iowa," says Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, though she noted that a fourth-place finish may be fatal if it's at a drastically lower percentage of the vote than those of the first three. Others say a third-place finish might be necessary. "Finishing in the top three would be exceeding expectations," says Chris Larimer, a professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa. "If he can somehow pull off a third-place finish, given some of the problem's he's had with the [GOP] base, that would be a huge boost to the campaign."

It's a different role for the Texas governor, who entered the race as a front-runner, only to see his lead plummet after a series of poor debate performances. By the time of his infamous "oops" moment during the November 9 debate, most political observers were ready to write him off. A consistent message and better debate performances have kept his campaign moving, but it hasn't been able to take off.

Perry has made Iowa the focus of his campaign for most of December. Since December 14, he's campaigned in the state exclusively on a bus tour. He's poured millions of dollars into television and radio advertising in the state, peppering it with attacks on his rivals. Focusing on his role as an outsider, he's attacked his opponents for being part of the Washington crowd. Speaking frequently of "Obama's war on religion," he's aimed for Iowa's religious voters, a pivotal bloc in the Hawkeye state. His early campaign haul and support from independent political advocacy groups or super PACs have given him a financial edge against rivals such as former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But despite the push for the religious vote, that demographic appears to be looking toward Santorum, who received a key endorsement from Iowa conservative religious leader Bob Vander Plaats. It's leading some political observers to wonder if voters will ever reconsider Perry, or if they've moved on.

[Photo Gallery: GOP candidates head to Iowa.]

"Virtually everyone in the race has gotten a first look," says one Republican operative. "The question is, does anyone get a second look?"

If Perry finishes well in Iowa, beating Gingrich or Santorum, it would give him the emotional—and perhaps, financial—boost to soldier on. New Hampshire is likely a lost cause: Romney has a key geographic advantage in the Granite state, and Perry's brand of Texas bluster doesn't tend to play well there. Duffy noted that the only southerner to win New Hampshire in modern times was George H.W. Bush—who was born in New England and kept strong ties to the region. The South Carolina and Florida primaries in late January could be a better battleground for Perry. But those aren't easy wins, either. December polls of both states found support for Perry at 5 percent or less.

Nevertheless, "He has the money to stick around," says Northern Iowa's Larimer.

Twitter: @AlexParkerDC