The Vanishing, Virtual Presidential Primary Campaign

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Henny Ray Abrams / AP

Republican presidential candidates appear on a split screen on "Huckabee," the Fox News program hosted by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Dec. 3, 2011 in New York.

Monday kicked off the final sprint to the Iowa caucuses, now less than a month away. The latest snapshot of the race, captured by a Des Moines Register poll released Saturday night, showed a surging Newt Gingrich atop the field, Ron Paul quietly climbing to second place and Mitt Romney slipping to third. For the second-tier candidates who have pinned their presidential aspirations to a strong showing in the Hawkeye State, now begins the furious, frantic push to the finish line. This critical week will be capped Saturday by a debate in Des Moines, a forum that would be a logical centerpiece for a trip to drum up or cement candidates’ Iowa support.

And yet, most of the field is nowhere to be found.

According to the latest schedules, the only GOP hopefuls set to make an appearance in the state this week are Rick Santorum–the Atlas of Iowa’s political-tourism industry, singlehandedly bearing its weight on his shoulders–and Paul, who has built a ground game some local insiders herald as the state’s best. Instead of reinforcing his commitment to Iowa, where he’ll need to slap together an actual campaign operation to capitalize on his momentum, Gingrich was on Fifth Avenue on Monday to kiss Donald Trump’s ring, the latest installment in one of the race’s most surreal subplots. Romney was headed to the West Coast to raise money; on Wednesday, when the GOP field (minus Paul) gathers in D.C. for a forum with the Republican Jewish Coalition, the former Massachusetts governor will send surrogate Chris Christie to stump in Iowa in his stead.

The barren slate of events in Iowa during a pivotal week is the latest sign that free media and national debates have overtaken old-school retail events as the dominant method of communicating. Campaigns are showing up less often and spending less money in key early states. Those that have hewed to the traditional model in their top battleground — Santorum and Michele Bachmann in Iowa, Jon Huntsman in New Hampshire — are struggling to claw their way into contention. They also lack the fundraising firepower of their chief rivals, leaving them with no choice but to soldier on with their strategy, scrambling to sway a few new voters at each stop.

Yet in some ways, the dynamic of the race is shifting. A month before caucus night, the candidates are gearing up to flood the air waves. Several launched new ads on Monday. Perhaps the most notable was the first TV spot released by Gingrich, a $250,000 buy that will run on cable and broadcast networks across the state this week. In a race dominated by doomsday rhetoric and the bleak economy, the ad extends the positive tone Gingrich has striven to hit in recent weeks: all purple mountains, amber waves of grain, fluttering flags and picturesque small towns. It is Morning in America again, the soft-spoken Gingrich assures us, even though the sun seems to be setting over the cornfields in the spot’s opening shot:

Paul, too, has a new ad up in Iowa, though it’s a little tougher to parse what he’s trying to accomplish. Titled “Big Dog,” the 30-second spot touts Paul as a Mack truck who will knock down federal agencies and drain the swamp in D.C. “Later, bureaucrats — that’s how Ron Paul rolls,” the narrator says. Jesse Benton, Paul’s campaign chairman, calls the ad “fun and energetic.” It’s also faintly evocative of a TLC promo:

Romney, who went up last week in the state, has bought another $265,000 in air time in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to National Journal. And Rick Perry’s campaign and Super PAC are buying time ahead of the candidate’s bus tour through Iowa next week.

None of this is a substitute for the presence of an actual flesh-and-blood candidate. But with just weeks before critical caucuses, the campaigns seem to be calculating that a virtual presence will suffice.

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