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Iowa caucuses: Possible outcomes -- and what they would mean

Only a fool would try to predict what will happen in tonight’s caucuses, so here goes.

The likeliest result is some combination of Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum finishing in the top three slots. We’re not foolish enough to try to predict the order, but we can spin out a few scenarios, depending.

A first-place Romney victory could all but end the Republican nominating fight as quickly as it starts. The combination of one-two victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two leadoff states, would make it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for any runner-ups to rise to challenge Romney. (See Al Gore and 2000).

LIVE COVERAGE: Iowa GOP caucuses

The most intriguing scenarios involve the hot candidate of the moment, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. His conversion from tortoise to hare in the final week of the Iowa race has made him the story of the last 48 hours, and a victory will crown him as the conservative alternative to the comparatively moderate Romney. That’s a great place to be in a contest marked by fitful efforts by a majority of Republicans to find someone, anyone, to back as an alternative to Romney. But a win or even a strong second-place Iowa showing could give Santorum a huge publicity boost and, more importantly, shower him with the money he would need to keep his campaign alive to South Carolina and, potentially, beyond.

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Conversely, if Santorum finishes third it would be a disappointment at this stage, when victory or at least a strong second-place finish seems well within his grasp. (Words that would not have been written even a few days ago.)

His timing, getting hot at the very end, has been impeccable. But if he were to finish behind some combination of Romney or Paul, Santorum may be wishing lightning had taken just a little longer to strike.

Looking ahead one week, Romney is far and away the front-runner in New Hampshire and, its contrarian nature aside, it is difficult to see how the former Massachusetts governor and part-time resident loses there if he places well in Iowa.

That is not to say there won’t be a few bumps on the way to Tampa, Fla., and the GOP nomination. There is a pattern of upstarts winning a few poke-in-the-eye primaries (Jerry Brown vs Bill Clinton in 1992, Jerry Brown (!) vs Jimmy Carter in 1976) as a bit of buyer’s remorse sets in.

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But Romney could even afford a loss in South Carolina, his weakest of the early-voting states, and effectively wrap things up Jan. 31 in Florida, where his superior resources might overwhelm any rival still standing -- or limping, as the case may be.

And don’t underestimate the glow that comes with victory. Winning makes a candidate look like (what else?) a winner, and the bandwagon can start filling up quickly, especially when there’s the impetus to rally quickly behind a nominee and take the fight to President Obama.

A solid second-place finish could also constitute success for Romney tonight, even though he has gone out on the proverbial limb by predicting victory in Iowa and going all-in to win. He’d have to explain tomorrow why second place is better than first (another flip-flop?), which would be a bit embarrassing but not terribly consequential.

That, however, depends on who finishes first. If it’s Texas Rep. Paul, then Romney and his strategists will be smiling because (hold those emails) it is difficult to see the Republican Party nominating a candidate with Paul’s isolationist and 100-proof libertarian views.

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Paul would likely play the role Jesse Jackson did in 1988, sticking around to rally his fervently faithful, creating headaches for the eventual nominee and fighting for some say at the convention and in the party platform (which no one will read anyway).

mark.barabak@latimes.com


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