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A week away, Iowa caucus winner still anyone’s guess

The Iowa caucuses are one week away — and if you’re looking for clarity in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Indeed, the bigger fear here is that the storied caucuses could be rendered politically irrelevant if Ron Paul should pull out a win next week, which remains entirely within the realm of possibility.

Paul, who returns to the state on Wednesday, could stand to benefit from a fractured Republican electorate, with social conservatives splintered behind an array of candidates and Mitt Romney still facing skepticism from voters searching for an alternative. Polls show scores of caucus-goers here still working on making up their minds, adding to the unsettled feel.

But Paul’s no lock either, of course, with questions persisting both about his isolationist foreign policy and his connection to a series of newsletters produced in the 1990s that included some extremist views. But he has a passionate base in this state that seems poised to mobilize.

Paul has an opportunity for victory because evangelicals haven’t coalesced around a candidate as they did around Mike Huckabee four years ago. Huckabee won the caucuses in 2008 with 34% of the vote and today it doesn’t seem like any candidate will draw close to that mark this time around.

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Instead, what appears to be looking increasingly likely is some sort of scrum atop the field with perhaps Paul, Romney and a third candidate emerging to move forward.

Who that third candidate will is where the intrigue lies. Will it be Newt Gingrich, who is being hammered here by ads by a super PAC supporting Romney and who appears to not only be returning to earth after peaking stratospherically earlier this month, but perhaps also burning up on reentry?

Will it be Rick Perry, who returns to his bus tour Tuesday here in a furious effort to bolt from the back of the pack, and who might still loom as Romney’s biggest threat down the line in states such as South Carolina and Florida if he can finish strong here?

Will it be Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who, while other conservatives have enjoyed their moment in the sun, has remained locked in a seemingly permanent midnight? Santorum, who has won support from some evangelical leaders of late, clearly wants to be the Huckabee of 2012.

While hunting Monday with Rep. Steve King (who notably failed to endorse him), Santorum said by his lights there were three distinct primaries taking place in Iowa.

“There’s the libertarian primary, which Ron Paul’s going to win. Then you’ve got the moderate primary, which Gingrich and Romney are scrumming for. And you’ve got three folks who are running as strong conservatives,” Santorum said. “If we win that primary we are in very good shape.”

Santorum was speaking of himself, Perry and Michele Bachmann, who, along with Santorum, has logged the most miles and put in the most work in the state. But there has been little sign that Bachmann is set to surge.

Hovering over the entire filed is the question of money. Romney has it, but does anyone else? The fourth-quarter fundraising deadline arrives at the end of the week and the numbers, when they become public, should provide some clarity on which candidate can carry the fight on to South Carolina, Florida and possibly beyond.

And that’s why the caucuses, regardless, will provide only a small piece of puzzle at the very best. The best hope for clarity would come should Romney win — and he’s coming to the state Tuesday evening for a speech in Davenport before starting up a multiday bus tour. If he can take Iowa, Romney would appear to be in almost unbeatable shape heading into the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary.

Paul’s path, should he win here, remains more opaque. He isn’t polling well in the other January primary states. That could change, of course, with the attention a caucus victory would bring.

For Gingrich, a victory would be a much welcome shot in the arm and could provide him with a platform to challenge Romney in South Carolina and more importantly Florida. Given his organizational troubles, should he finish behind Perry or Santorum, his road would grow much tougher.

Perry remains perhaps the most interesting player. Left for dead after his series of wobbly debate performances, he has had the funds to saturate the airwaves here, giving him a chance to pull a surprise. If he can do it, he could have the capacity to take the race into March.

At the same time, remember who finished third here four years ago: Fred Thompson, who now pitches reverse-mortgages on television. Sometimes, not winning is exactly what it always has been — losing.

james.oliphant@latimes.com


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