Presidential contenders enter critical phase of 2016 election

Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton
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There are just 26 days left before the Iowa caucuses and 34 days until the New Hampshire primary. That means every day is critical for every candidate as they make decisions on where to spend their time and where to spend their money.

On Tuesday, nine of the 10 leading candidates for the Republican nomination were in either Iowa or New Hampshire. Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton on pay-for-play accusations: a lot of smoke and no fire Trump ties campaign to Brexit: Time to 'redeclare' US independence Clinton: Trump 'peddling bigotry and prejudice and paranoia' MORE was also in Iowa, though her main rival, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders launches nonprofit to carry on campaign's goals The Trail 2016: Control the Alt-Right Shift Uber to help drivers plan for retirement MORE (I-Vt.), was delivering a major speech on Wall Street reform in Manhattan.

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It is becoming clearer with each passing day what each candidate needs to do in the early states — and where they are focusing their efforts.

REPUBLICANS

Businessman Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCoulter: Trump's 'softening' on immigration remark a panic move Clinton on pay-for-play accusations: a lot of smoke and no fire Trump ties campaign to Brexit: Time to 'redeclare' US independence MORE

In his campaigning style, as in so much else, Trump is one of a kind. He largely eschews the small meet-and-greet events that are a tradition of early-state politicking in favor of large rallies. 

According to data collated by New England Cable News (NECN), Trump and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have visited New Hampshire a similar number of times — 22 and 24 trips, respectively — but Trump has done 27 events to Bush’s 79.

Trump is way ahead in New Hamshire polls, attracting the support of 26.3 percent of Republican voters, according to the RealClearPolitics (RCP) average. That’s approximately twice the level of backing drawn by second-place Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioCoulter: Trump's 'softening' on immigration remark a panic move Poll: Trump holds narrow lead over Clinton in Florida Clinton enjoying edge over Trump in Silicon Valley MORE (Fla.)

In Iowa, Trump faces a much harder fight. He’s now second in the RCP average to Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzThe Trail 2016: Control the Alt-Right Shift Trump: Rick Perry would 'do well' against Cruz Conway, Kelly clash over Trump’s use of personal insults MORE (Texas). One worry for Trump will be whether a defeat in Iowa would seriously erode his support in New Hampshire.

Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas)

Cruz is viewed as a much stronger bet to win in Iowa than in New Hampshire, the first state being a more hospitable home for his brand of fervent conservatism.

His campaign choices tell the same story: Cruz was in Iowa Tuesday and, from Wednesday through Saturday, he has 20 more events scheduled there.

Cruz has already spent 43 days in Iowa, according to a Des Moines Register tracker, compared to his 13 trips to New Hampshire. Cruz’s lead in the Iowa RCP average is small but meaningful at about 4 percentage points. Despite the challenges he faces in New Hampshire, he is third there.

If those poll ratings translated to actual results, Cruz would be more than happy.

Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.)

Rubio’s campaign aides insist that he can compete everywhere, unlike some of his rivals. Despite that, it would be considered an upset if he won Iowa, where he now lies a distant third in the RCP average to Cruz and Trump. Rubio’s strategy demands that he not raise the white flag anywhere, however. He was in Iowa Tuesday and will hold another event there Wednesday before heading for New Hampshire on Thursday and Friday.

Rubio has spent 35 days in Iowa and visited New Hampshire 20 times, according to the Des Moines Register and NECN trackers. He and his allies are also among the biggest spenders on advertising in the early states. They’ve spent $7.8 million in Iowa and $7.3 million in New Hampshire, according to an NBC News analysis.

Rubio is currently second in New Hampshire, and he needs to at least hold that position when the Feb. 9 primary rolls around.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson

Carson has been falling rapidly in the polls. He is now fourth in the RCP Iowa average, where he once led, and seventh in New Hampshire. Iowa was always more welcoming territory for him — he has spent 31 days in the state compared with his 10 trips to the Granite State.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Christie’s chances rely on New Hampshire, which he visited again on Tuesday and where he will remain on Wednesday. He has risen significantly in polls there, sitting at fourth with around 11 percent support. That surge is also likely a consequence of TV advertising: According to the NBC News figures, Christie and his allies have spent $9.2 million in New Hampshire, the third-highest total among Republicans. Christie has not neglected Iowa entirely — he’s spent 27 days there, per the Des Moines Register — but he only ties for eighth place in the RCP average there.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

Bush and his allies have spent a startling $23 million on advertising in New Hampshire, according to NBC News — more than double the amount spent by any other candidate. Despite that, the former Florida governor is only in sixth place in the RCP average. He is still striving to change that — he was in the Granite State Tuesday and has events scheduled on Wednesday and Thursday.

There is little sign as yet of his numbers shifting, but it’s important to remember the last major New Hampshire poll was conducted before Christmas.

Incongruously, however, Bush is one place higher in the Iowa polling average than in New Hampshire, despite having had approximately half as many events there.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.)

It’s Iowa or bust for both men, who won the caucuses in 2008 and 2012 respectively. Huckabee has spent 62 days in Iowa but has ventured to New Hampshire only five times. For Santorum, it’s 75 Iowa days and seven trips to New Hampshire. Both men’s poll standings are low, but they are hoping to recapture the magic surrounding their previous triumphs.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich

As with Bush and Christie, it all rests on New Hampshire for Kasich. He and his allies have spent $10.1 million on ads there, according to the NBC News analysis, second only to Bush. He is holding events there throughout the week. He is currently fifth in the RCP average in the state, but his 9.7 percent support leaves him fewer than four points shy of second-placed Rubio. In Iowa, Kasich is 10th in the RCP average.

Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulClinton enjoying edge over Trump in Silicon Valley Trump gets little backing from Silicon Valley Lawmakers amplify criticism of US support for Saudi bombing campaign MORE (Ky.) and businesswoman Carly Fiorina

Paul and Fiorina were both in New Hampshire Tuesday, but Fiorina will stay there at least through Friday, whereas Paul will go to Iowa Thursday and Friday. For both candidates, their efforts at this point are reliant on a heavy dose of optimism. Paul is tied for sixth in Iowa and ninth in New Hampshire, per the RCP averages. Fiorina is eighth in New Hampshire and tied for that same position in Iowa.

 

DEMOCRATS

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Clinton is significantly stronger in Iowa than New Hampshire, a reversal of the situation in her titanic 2008 struggle with then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack ObamaActing Democratic Party chief: Trump’s ‘delusional’ on blacks Five takeaways from Clinton, Trump finance reports Trump brings mothers of children killed by undocumented immigrants on stage MORE (D-Ill.). She is clear of Sanders by more than 12 points in the Hawkeye State, according to the RCP average. According to the NBC News figures, she and her allies have also outspent Sanders on advertising there by $6 million to $4.2 million.

Clinton has held roughly the same number of events in the two early states: 69 in Iowa and 64 in New Hampshire, according to the Des Moines Register and NECN trackers.

If she wins the caucuses, she could likely survive a Sanders victory in New Hampshire, ascribing such a result to him having his political base in the adjacent state of Vermont.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Sanders leads Clinton by about 4 points in the RCP average in New Hampshire, and he desperately needs to maintain that advantage if he is to have any chance of scoring an upset in the overall battle for the nomination. Sanders has spent almost $5 million in advertising in the state, though that is still less than Clinton and her allies, who have spent $7.5 million. Much will ride on Iowa for Sanders. He has held more events in the state than Clinton — 103 to 69, by the Des Moines Register’s count — and he will be hoping that translates to greater grassroots enthusiasm on caucuses night.