"Mike Huckabee's decision not to run for president in 2012 may be the most consequential event of the Republican primary campaign so far," says New York Times numbers guru Nate Silver. "And nowhere will that impact be felt more than in Iowa," which will hold its first-in-the-nation caucus next February. Iowa has a history of playing kingmaker — Barack Obama gained huge momentum with a surprise win there in 2008 — and Republican presidential hopefuls will all be eager to do well in the make-or-break contest. With Huckabee — the 2008 Iowa winner — out, Gov. Terry Branstad (R) declared on Monday that the contest is "wide open," and urged GOP contenders to come fight for the state's notoriously hands-on caucus-goers. Here, five predictions about how Iowa will shape the emerging GOP contest:
1. Tim Pawlenty is the new frontrunner
With Huckabee on the sidelines, Tim Pawlenty "has an excellent shot at a clean victory in Iowa," says Ross Douthat in The New York Times. And if he wins Iowa, his appeal to both social conservatives and establishment Republicans means he'll pick up Huckabee backers in the South, and "still be moderate and safe and competent-seeming enough to woo voters in the Northeast and his native Midwest." But he has one problem, says Amy Sullivan in TIME. Evangelicals and values voters "don't know who he is."
2. If Michele Bachmann wins Iowa, she could win the nomination
Pawlenty is a social conservative, but he's not a "warrior" like fellow Minnesotan Rep. Michele Bachmann, says Chuck Todd at MSNBC. If she runs, the Tea Party favorite has a good shot at Huckabee's voters, and Iowa. "Bachmann is a seriously underrated dark horse possibility," says Jonathan Chait in The New Republic. If Pawlenty has to battle other "establishment-friendly" candidates, there's "a very strong chance for Bachmann to capture the nomination." But she has to win Iowa, says Nate Silver in The Times. If not, she becomes "a footnote in the campaign."
3. Mitch Daniels is the biggest wild card
"The buzz is building around the Indiana governor," says James Oliphant in the Los Angeles Times, and much of it centers on whether George W. Bush's former budget director would hurt Romney or Pawlenty more if he enters the race. Regardless, the fiscally-minded Daniels won't win in values-conscious Iowa, says Nate Silver in The Times. But he might pull a John McCain and "slingshot from a strong second- or third-place finish in Iowa to a victory in the Granite State."
4. Mitt Romney can win without Iowa
Before Huckabee bowed out, the former moderate Massachusetts governor "was all but certain to finish second (or maybe third) in Iowa," says John Ellis at Business Insider. Now, facing a fractured Huckabee coalition, he may just be the favorite to win Iowa. Still, he could easily survive a second-place showing to a populist candidate like Bachmann, says The Times' Silver. Indeed, Bachmann doing well would actually help Romney beat Pawlenty in the long run, as Pawlenty needs to build momentum with a strong Iowa showing much more than the deep-pocketed Romney does, says Ramesh Ponnuru in National Review.
5. If Ron Paul takes 20 percent, it's going to be a wild ride
Iowa may not seem like fertile ground for the libertarian gadfly from Texas, says Silver in The Times. But Ron Paul gets about 10 percent of the votes in any state, thanks to his "eccentric but enthusiastic base of supporters." So he'll probably make a respectable showing in the Hawkeye State. However, if "Paul were, hypothetically, to garner anything like 20 percent of the vote in Iowa, we'd be in an alternate universe where virtually anything could happen." Given the weak GOP field and angry electorate, this just might be that kind of election cycle.