Iowa looms as last chance for some candidates

The Iowa caucuses could spell the end of the line for several presidential candidates.

On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are the likeliest to pack up if the former Iowa caucus winners have a disappointing finish on Monday.

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Iowa could also deal Ben Carson, Rand PaulRand PaulGreen party candidate: People have 'real questions' about vaccines What to watch for on Day 2 at the GOP convention Cyber squatters sitting on valuable VP web addresses MORE and Carly Fiorina a crucial blow if they fail to outperform their spot at the polls. But most experts believe they’ll hang on with enough financial resources to pray for a backup plan. 

On the Democratic side, party members have long predicted that Martin O’Malley’s longshot bid is nearing its end. But as he faces such low expectations, Democratic strategists believe he’s a sure bet to stick around at least until New Hampshire and hope for a miracle

“For those that have the resources to hang in there, then there’s no reason to get out of the race, but cross your fingers that something happens on the campaign trail and puts the wind at your back,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist and former congressional leadership aide.

For Huckabee and Santorum, it’s a matter of money and poor polling.

“Assuming they don’t have some sort of a breakthrough, it is probably the end of the line for the Huckabee and Santorum campaigns,” Christian Ferry, Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamTrump: 'I hope' Russia is able to get Clinton's emails Syria activists cheer Kaine pick Vulnerable GOP senators praise Kaine MORE’s former campaign manager, told The Hill about the two candidates’ chances after Iowa.

“You look at their financial conditions, I’ve got to think they are under some real pressure. They are no longer on the main debate stage and they are not going to be unless they have a real breakthrough.”

Both candidates pegged their entire campaign strategy on Iowa, holding the top two spots for number of campaign events there, according to the Des Moines Register. But Huckabee hasn’t hit more than 4 percent in an Iowa poll since November, while Santorum hasn’t done so since July.

The Iowa results could be detrimental to their already lagging fundraising, hastening the need for a departure.

“It’s hard as hell to raise money after a poor showing because everyone wants to put their money on a winner,” former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, said.

Both candidates appear to be sending signals that they know the end may be near.

Huckabee told CNN’s “Wolf” on Thursday he’s hopeful that close margins between several of the candidates can help more than the top three finishers in Iowa to move on, but admitted his campaign is “hoping for” a surprise finish high enough to be one of them.

He also jockeyed closer to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump vows economic progress on Twitter Muslim DNC speaker challenges GOP leaders to call Trump out Battle for union vote erupts in Ohio MORE by bashing Ted CruzTed Cruz100 days to go in volatile race Voting Trump because of the Supreme Court isn't enough Trump blames GOP as Dems top RNC ratings MORE and not ruling out his ineligibility to serve as president based on his Canadian birth, before joining Santorum at Trump’s pro-veteran rally on Thursday.

Ferry didn’t say whether he thinks Huckabee will endorse Trump if he leaves, but noted that Trump could “use surrogates” to help him shore up his support with evangelicals.

“There are still a large number of evangelical voters in the Republican primary, and certainly in the Southern states voting on March 1,” he said.

“Someone like Mike Huckabee could be a very valuable voice for Donald Trump.”

Santorum’s closing remarks during Thursday night’s undercard debate sounded like an acknowledgement that this could be his final run.

"Over the last 5 years, I’ve done over 700 speeches and town-hall meetings all throughout the state of Iowa and it’s been an incredible ride," Santorum said at Fox News’s undercard debate in Iowa.

Carson, like Huckabee and Santorum, has gone almost all-in on Iowa as he looks to woo evangelical voters with his faith-inspired message. While he briefly rose to challenge Trump at the top spot of Iowa polls in November, he has since crashed back to Earth in large part because of national security fumbles.

The former neurosurgeon is in much better shape financially than the former caucus winners, however. Carson raised $23 million in the final fundraising quarter of 2015, which will likely put him ahead of most of his GOP rivals. But his campaign treasurer noted to The Hill last month that his operation spent more than they raised during the fourth quarter.

Even if his fundraising dries up, Carson can likely still ride on fumes as long as he cuts spending.

Paul and Fiorina face a different calculation--their strategies don’t hinge solely on Iowa, which allows them to play a bit of a longer game regardless of their results.

Some critics have called on Paul to end his White House bid and focus on his reelection in Kentucky as Republicans seeks to maintain their slim majority in the Senate. Most don’t see him in imminent danger, but top challenger Lexington Democratic Mayor Jim Gray jumped into the Senate race this week, which could speed up the decision making process.

“Paul probably should [drop out], but won't - unless his Senate campaign is in real trouble,” said Rich Galen, GOP strategist and former press secretary to Vice President Dan Quayle and House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The Kentucky senator will continue his presidential bid until the Nevada caucus on Feb. 23 despite the pressure to return home,  GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak predicted, as he looks to cobble together pieces of the libertarian segment that previously flocked to his father, former GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul.

Fiorina will also likely chug along after the Iowa caucuses and continue until at least the New Hampshire primary contest. She has divided her time fairly evenly in both early-voting states and doesn’t appear to be in financial danger.

But some Republican strategists say that all of the candidates will wait it out regardless of their Iowa finishes and will continue at least until the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary, or even through the so-called SEC primary on March 1 to see if their messages resonate in the swing of Southern states.

“I think just about everyone will stay in through New Hampshire because everyone wants to knows how you play with evangelicals in Iowa and how you play with more moderate, mainstream voters in New Hampshire,” Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who worked on John McCainJohn McCainMcCain granddaughter comes out in support of Clinton With reservations, moving toward Hillary Clinton FULL SPEECH: Hillary Clinton closes out Democratic convention MORE’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Steele, the former RNC chairman, agreed, noting that in 2012, late surges by the underfunded Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich proved that campaigns can outperform fundraising struggles.

“If I’m a campaign, even if I’m running on fumes, presumably I’ve spent money because I have a strategy, I’ve spent money in a way that will afford me the opportunity to stay to a certain date beyond Iowa,” he said.

For Democrat O’Malley, hanging on past Iowa could give him another chance at another state to see if the script flips.

“He may try to hang in there hoping for chaos...as long as he can pay for his plane ticket to the next debate, the next state,” Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s campaign manager in 2004, said.

“If for some reason Sanders pulls [a win in Iowa] off and you are still at single digits, I think there’s a case, if I was advising him, to be made to hang in here and see where the chips start falling.”