DES MOINES – For the field of hard-driving presidential candidates and the Iowa Republicans they pursue, the finish line is in sight.
Months of stump speeches, hand clasps and other trappings of retail politicking will culminate Tuesday night when the leading vote-getters at 1,774 precincts have their tickets punched in the GOP presidential preference poll and the also-rans make tough decisions whether they can continue their quests for their party’s 2012 nomination and the right to face Democrat Barack Obama next fall.
“I’m excited for Tuesday. I think it’s going to be fun. I think you’re going to see a lot of people turn out as well,” said state Rep. Renee Schulte, a Cedar Rapids Republican who is backing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the long-awaited Jan. 3 balloting.
“I’m also glad that we are going to be done with caucus so that we can return to our regularly scheduled programming on television and news and everything else,” she added.
For one night, Iowa will become the center of the political universe as tens of thousands of Republicans choose among Romney, U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman in statewide balloting that will be dissected by throngs of national and international news media.
“We’re watching you on an hourly basis. That’s all I do any more,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “This is Iowa’s moment. The parade will move on after next Tuesday.”
Iowans, who once again had to battle other states to keep their first-in-the-nation position, witnessed a campaign process that continues to evolve with technological advances, instant communications and 24/7 news cycles.
This year’s caucus season was different because most of the candidates did not spend as much time in the state as previously, with the exception of Santorum, Bachmann and to a lesser extent Perry, Sabato noted.
“By and large this election has been run from TV studios – both in terms of the advertising and the 13 televised debates. It’s been a nationalized campaign,” he said.
The economic recession also took its toll on GOP candidates’ fundraising as well, even the frontrunners, Sabato added. “They’re not pulling in the tens of millions that some of their predecessors had done, and I think that also limits what they can do. They have to make choices in a way that perhaps some other candidates in other years have not had to do.”
He said it appeared that Romney was peaking at the right time, that Paul has timed his campaign well, and that Santorum was enjoying an improvement in his poll numbers as Tuesday approaches.
“You’ve had six frontrunners in Iowa over the past year. That’s unprecedented, I think. I went through the past numbers and I certainly didn’t see anything like that,” he said. “With six frontrunners, timing really is critical and oddly enough it’s the original frontrunner who may be timing this just right — that is Mitt Romney.”
University of Iowa political scientist Tim Hagle said the fragmentation of support among religious and social conservatives may give Romney an opening to win in a state where he did not compete very actively until near the end of the race.
The fact that Romney and Paul both campaigned in Iowa four years ago appears to be paying dividends for them in their second go-round, he added.
“I think the bottom line in terms of what is different is that it seems that supporters are more split among the candidates in the field and it’s a more fluid race. We’ve seen a lot of people that have popped up very quickly in the polls and faded almost as quickly,” Hagle noted.
“The question is: are we going to see one more in these waning days of the caucus season and maybe it’s Santorum’s turn or will Romney and Paul hold steady and duke it out for a first-place finish on caucus night?” he added.
Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford said Iowa Republicans “seem to be flailing about” looking for an alternative to Romney but have been unable to coalesce around one candidate.
“Various ones have had their moments in the sun and then flamed out,” he said. “The question is whether Santorum is finally going to get his moment.”
Goldford said this year’s campaign has raised a question whether the televised debates have taken over some of the traditional role of the caucuses by revealing unexpected strengths and weaknesses in various caucus candidates.
Perry was damaged by poor debate performances and spent “an immense” amount of advertising money hoping for “a second chance to make a first impression,” he said. Meanwhile, Bachmann never fully recovered from Perry’s Aug. 13 entry that “just stepped all over her straw poll victory.”
Traditionally, Iowa’s role as the lead-off state in the nominating process is to winnow the presidential field and that could be true again this year. “We could see candidates limp on beyond Iowa but we could also see one or two drop out,” Goldford said.