A Day of Iowa Splintering

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The Iowa caucuses are unlikely to deliver any candidate a clear mandate in the Republican presidential nomination contest in two weeks. In fact, if anything, the chances for a split decision are growing every day — as today’s campaign highlights make abundantly clear.

First, the long-awaited endorsement of evangelical heavyweight Bob Vander Plaats has gone to Rick Santorum. Santorum’s never made it to the top tier of the race, even in Iowa, but he’s spent more time than any other candidate there, putting in the traditional retail legwork in his tour of all 99 counties. He’s on the air now too and, with the backing of key social conservatives, there’s no reason to think he can’t finish well into double-digits come Jan. 3. Democrats have put him on their watch-list; you should too.

Though Michele Bachmann was passed over for Vander Plaats’ nod and hasn’t made much noise recently, she too has put in serious time in Iowa and registers decently in the polls.

Rick Perry, who was once a deep threat in Iowa before suturing his foot to his mouth in fall debates, has been slowly creeping up in the polls as well. And after a slew of soft-focus positive spots, he is joining the negative advertising scrum today with this 30-second spot (by the way, for a great breakdown of how much the candidates are spending, check out National Journal):

The Wall St.-K Street-Main Street trichotomy is a clever one, and Perry’s TV spending is second only to the deep-pocketed Mitt Romney’s. His gaffery aside, Perry’s one of the few people who can still check all the boxes —fiscal, social and national security conservative — for Republican voters. Perry should also be able to collect more than 10% of the Iowa vote.

The candidate most likely to claim first place in the caucuses is Ron Paul, who has a great organization and has been running a scorched earth TV campaign against Newt Gingrich. But his latest ad tones things down a bit, relegating its swipe on Newt to a nameless, sepia-toned shot with the words “insider deals” stamped across the frame and bookended by similar knocks on other candidates. The rest is positive and concludes with an interesting phrase–”the one we can trust”–that seems to make an argument for his wider viability. (As I wrote yesterday, I think this race is essentially about trust for Republicans.)

It will be fascinating to see how much speed Paul can pick up in Iowa, but it’s unlikely to give him enough momentum for victory elsewhere. There is a trust deficit between Paul and the GOP establishment and candidates of his ilk–Huckabees and Buchanans–have had trouble winning the longer nomination war. Romney may well be the long-term beneficiary of all this, but between now and Jan. 3, the Republican race seems liable to go any–or every–which way.

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