DES MOINES, Iowa -- Two questions loom over the traveling political carnival that has encamped here as the Des Moines Register prepares to release its final poll measuring the preferences of Iowa Republicans before Tuesday's caucuses. The first is obvious: Who will win the first-in-the nation contest? The second is attracting less attention but is ultimately more significant: Will the result change the overall dynamic of the GOP race?
For all of the sound and fury in Iowa this weekend, the very uncertainty surrounding the first question adds to the suspicion that the answer to the second could be: not much.
Iowa's impact is open to question this year not mostly because it is uniquely quirky -- though its quirks are part of the story -- but because it accurately reflects the basic trend that has governed the GOP race over the past year. Here, as nationally, Mitt Romney is performing solidly, if not spectacularly, with the party's most pragmatic and secular elements. None of his rivals, meanwhile, is convincingly consolidating the more ideological and religiously conservative components of the party most resistant to him.
That dynamic reframes the most important question in the caucus. The biggest issue is not who wins -- but whether the results create an alternative to Romney capable of competing seriously against him in other states. If the caucuses fail to do that, the results will solidify the advantage that Romney has reestablished in the race, no matter the order of win, place and show.
The two Iowa surveys released this week (from CNN/Time/ORC and NBC/Marist) have each shown Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum in the top three. Senior Romney advisers argue, convincingly, that if those three ultimately constitute Iowa's top tier the order in which they finish won't matter much: any of those combinations would benefit Romney. The reason is that such a finish would deny an Iowa boost to Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry.
Each man, for all of his struggles in the race, still probably has more residual potential to attract a broad coalition against Romney in other states than Paul or Santorum. But given the wounds Gingrich and Perry have accumulated (many self-inflicted), neither is likely to revive enough to present such a threat without a strong injection of momentum from Iowa. Even that might not be enough to really earn them a second look in other states, but without such a boost their odds of making a last stand against Romney could dwindle toward the microscopic.
"The question is whether another mainstream candidate remains viable post-Iowa-Gingrich or Perry-each of whom could slow him [Romney] down in South Carolina," said veteran Iowa GOP activist Douglas Gross, who co-chaired Romney's 2008 campaign here but is neutral this time.
The Romney forces see less to fear in strong finishes for Paul or Santorum. Paul has an ardent following ideal for a caucus that may generate only a modest turnout, but almost all GOP analysts agree the distance between the floor and ceiling of his support is too narrow for him to truly compete for the nomination. Santorum, if lifted by Iowa, could be a more compelling figure: he offers a mix of blue-collar economic nationalism and cultural conservatism reminiscent of Patrick J. Buchanan's 1996 "peasants with pitchforks" crusade, without the racially-tinged edge. That could be an attractive mix for the growing working-class constituency in the GOP primary (voters without a college education comprised fully half of the Republican primary electorate in 2008, according to an ABC compilation of all exit polls that year).
But given Romney's strength in New Hampshire, the key battleground for anyone hoping to derail him will be South Carolina. And the Romney camp believes it would be better for him if Santorum, rather than the southerners Perry or Gingrich, emerges from Iowa as his principal opponent in the Palmetto State.
Santorum, as a northern Catholic, would face more challenges than a revived Perry or Gingrich in unifying South Carolina's large evangelical protestant vote-which might represent the right's last real chance to slow Romney, depending on the Iowa results. And Santorum has devoted so much time to Iowa -- an implicit part of his appeal at his stop in Marshalltown Friday night was that voters should reward the depth of his commitment to the state -- that he's established little visibility and virtually no organizational presence elsewhere.
An Iowa win would enormously raise Santorum's profile, of course, but he would not have the time to build the connections in South Carolina that he's accumulated mile by mile here. "Santorum can't replicate there [in South Carolina] what he did here [in Iowa]-which is run for governor," said one senior Romney adviser. Beyond South Carolina, Santorum would be virtually starting from scratch. (It's worth remembering that Santorum too didn't obtain enough signatures to get on the ballot in Virginia.) Santorum also offers Romney the same contrast he's stressed against Gingrich: a career in politics vs. experience in the private sector.
What's more, it's highly possible that even if Santorum finishes near the top here, the outcome will be too jumbled to convince Gingrich or Perry, and maybe even Michele Bachmann, to quit the race before making a last-stand in South Carolina. That would create what the Romney camp considers "an ideal situation, to be blunt," as one puts it: the possibility that several candidates to his right will continue to fragment conservative voters in New Hampshire and especially in South Carolina.
In 2008, a similar splintering allowed John McCain to win South Carolina despite very limited support from the state's most conservative elements. An Iowa muddle-or even a result that elevates Paul and Santorum while suppressing Perry and Gingrich-could put Romney on a path toward replicating that feat. Romney advisers acknowledge that Iowa, which stung him in 2008, could still wound him again if he falls toward the bottom of the pack. But that now seems very unlikely. Unless Gingrich or Perry comes out of Iowa with a strong second wind, the caucus' biggest winner will be Romney, whether he captures the most votes or not.