The signs are pointing to a volatile and dramatic finale to the Republican presidential campaign in Iowa, which holds the first nominating caucuses on January 3.
With the voting two weeks from tomorrow, veteran GOP strategists say huge numbers of likely caucus-goers remain undecided and probably won't make up their minds until the day of the caucuses. About half, according to the polls, say they could change their minds between now and then.
"It's the most muddled situation we've ever had," says a senior Republican who advised Ronald Reagan and is currently neutral in the GOP race.
With the debates now completed in Iowa, five factors will make the difference, GOP strategists say:
1. Television commercials. The candidates are running ads at a furious pace, and many of them are negative. A particular target is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has enjoyed a surge in support but who is being criticized as an unreliable conservative with a flawed background as a Washington insider. Among those most active in waging the air war are former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
2. Personal appearances. Person-to-person campaigning makes a difference, and the candidates are stumping extensively across the state, especially Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Iowa could be a make-or-break contest for each of them.
3. Making a mistake. At this late stage of the race in Iowa, a gaffe could torpedo a campaign or hurt it badly. The candidates will be careful, but sometimes weariness or pique gets the upper hand.
4. Organization. Having people voice support to pollsters is a good sign. But it's also important to build an organization to actually get supporters to the caucuses, which are held in living rooms, schools, firehouses, and other places around the state. Ron Paul is thought to have the best organization and the most committed supporters this time around.
5. An issue catches fire. One of several concerns could soar to the top of the priority list within the largely conservative universe of GOP caucus voters at the last minute, such as immigration or abortion. This could happen in a number of ways, such as a particularly compelling speech by a candidate or an effort by an interest group to dominate the public's attention.
The outcome could be a continuation of the current muddle, with the Iowa winner only a few percentage points ahead of his or her rivals and no one emerging as a definitive front-runner. This would make the New Hampshire primary on January 10 all the more important.