The Meaning of Iowa

Hawkeye State serves to separate the winners from the losers.

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Iowa may not consistently pick the winner in its presidential nominating caucuses, but it does have a way of winnowing the weaker candidates from the field. That seems likely to happen again tonight when Iowa Republicans hold their caucuses to start a delegate selection process that will lead to the choice of a nominee later this year.

Polls show three candidates are enjoying relatively strong support and are leading or close to the lead, all with backing from about one-fifth of the likely caucus-goers--former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, whose campaign appears to be surging and apparently has the most momentum.

[Vote: Can Rick Santorum Win the 2012 GOP Nomination?]

It's impossible to predict the order of finish, partly because 41 per cent of the likely caucus goers say they are undecided or could change their minds at the last minute, according to the latest Des Moines Register poll.

Romney told Fox News last night that he, Paul, and Santorum will probably emerge from Iowa bunched together and all will be "supercharged" from the results as they head to New Hampshire for the first-in-the-nation primary a week from today.

But the winner of the Iowa caucuses doesn't necessarily go on to win the GOP nomination. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas won there in 2008 but Sen. John McCain of Arizona captured the nomination.

Aside from who wins, the other story tonight will be the also-rans-- the candidates who will have their campaigns severely damaged by a bad showing. The candidates in this category are likely to be former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.

[See pictures of the GOP Candidates Heading to the Iowa Caucus.]

The tenor of the New Hampshire primary could be even more contentious than Iowa's caucuses, where a wave of negative TV ads has been running for weeks. Gingrich, the target of many of those negative ads, told Fox News last night that he intends to hit harder at Romney starting tomorrow in New Hampshire, drawing "clear contrasts" and billing Romney as a "moderate" from Massachusetts who has been "aloof from the conservative movement."

Another candidate who could be a factor in New Hampshire is former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah, who bypassed Iowa and is counting on New Hampshire as his breakthrough state even though he lags in the polls there.

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