Seven-day sprint to Iowa

Seven-day sprint to Iowa
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The 2016 presidential candidates are entering the final sprint to the Iowa caucuses, which take place one week from today. 

The fight for outright victory is fierce in both parties, with Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive areas where Trump and Dems could make a deal Trump could mean new momentum for drug imports Senate Democrats brace for Trump era MORE apparently gaining steam against Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonCoup D’état? First the FBI, Now the intelligence community Obama should pardon Snowden as well as Manning Trump could mean new momentum for drug imports MORE, while Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump: I won't move press briefing room Trump rips NBC News on jobs report: Its 'fake news' DeVos: 'Yes' Trump's comments in leaked audio describe sexual assault MORE and Ted CruzTed CruzGraham, Cruz proposal to defund the U.N. is misguided Right renews push for term limits as Trump takes power Dissenting nominees give hope to GOP skeptics of Trump MORE duke it out on the Republican side.

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But the Iowa caucuses are not only about who comes first. They have long served to winnow the number of contenders, something of particular relevance given the large Republican field this year.

Here’s what the candidates will be hoping to accomplish in the next seven days — and what their objectives will be on caucus night itself.

GOP

Businessman Donald Trump

Trump is now the definitive favorite for the Republican nomination, despite the fact that his demise has been predicted again and again.

Victory in Iowa is by no means assured for the real estate mogul. But he has bounced back into the lead in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) average of polls in the state after brief periods during which Ben Carson and, more recently, Cruz had displaced him.

Cruz is clearly his toughest competitor, in part because the Texan’s social conservatism looks to be a snugger fit than Trump’s braggadocio for the sensibilities of Iowa Republicans. 

Trump’s outsider cachet has gotten him this far, however. And he has played the media game masterfully, most recently in his announcement, at an Iowa rally, of an endorsement from 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The Palin event kept Trump in command of media coverage and starved his rivals of publicity at a crucial stage.

Now, he needs to avoid any last minute erosions in his standing and prove that his campaign has the ground game to meet the challenges of a caucus system. 

If he emerges the winner on Feb 1., he is expected to roll on to victory in the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary, where he holds a bigger polling lead. From there, he would be hard to stop.

But if Trump underperforms, his enemies will seize on that as evidence that his bubble is finally bursting.

Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas)

Cruz has a very real shot at winning Iowa. He led in some polls of Republican voters in the state as recently as last week. 

To that end, he can be expected to pound home his message of vigorous, anti-establishment conservatism during the next week on subjects from national security to the role of religion in public life.

It would be a blow to Cruz’s pride if he were bested by Trump, with whom he has been jousting heatedly recently. But a second-place finish would be far from fatal. His longer-term hope is that the multi-candidate field is ultimately narrowed to a two-horse race between Trump and himself. Iowa looks set to help him toward that goal, unless he significantly underperforms. 

Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioRubio wades into Trump-Lewis feud 19 companies that Trump has tweeted about Ex-Dem gov: I would have picked Giuliani over Tillerson MORE (R-Fla.)

Rubio is in third place in the RCP average in Iowa, but both Trump and Cruz have more than twice as much support. 

For Rubio, the real battle is not with the candidates in front of him but with those immediately behind. His niche is as a conservative who is purportedly more electable than Trump or Cruz and more acceptable to centrists. If someone else with similar appeal were to finish ahead of him in Iowa, he could be in trouble. 

That looks unlikely for now, but it remains within the bounds of possibility. In one poll released last week, Rubio edged Jeb Bush by just two points and Chris Christie by five. 

Rubio is just looking to emerge from Iowa unscathed and ready to fight another day.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson

Carson needs to pull a major upset in Iowa if he is to have any chance of rekindling his chances. That seems unlikely given his recent decline. He needs, at minimum, a strong third-place showing.

“The Governors”: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich

The hopes of all three candidates are pinned on New Hampshire, but that makes it important that they put in a respectable showing in Iowa. To a large extent, they are competing against each other. Even besting their rivals by a couple of percentage points could have a big effect on shaping perceptions in New Hampshire.

The rest: Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulGOP senators introducing ObamaCare replacement Monday Sanders, Dems defend ObamaCare at Michigan rally Paul: Medicaid expansion 'the big question' MORE (Ky.), businesswoman Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.)

The fact that Paul is the best performing of this quartet in the RCP average, with 3.4 percent backing, says it all. For Huckabee and Santorum, the winners of the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and 2012, respectively, the end seems near. Both men rely heavily on evangelical support, but they have been overshadowed by other candidates. Fiorina’s moment in the sun happened several months ago, in the wake of a strong debate performance, and was short-lived

DEMOCRATS

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Clinton and her allies have been attacking Bernie Sanders with vigor in recent days — a shift that underlines how serious a threat she faces from the Vermont senator. 

The Clinton team has been lashing out at Sanders on foreign policy, healthcare and even his apparent difficulty in winning over black voters.

For Clinton, it’s vitally important to avoid a re-run of the 2008 primary, where a loss in Iowa at the hands of then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) inflicted a blow from which her campaign never entirely recovered.

Clinton leads Sanders in the RCP average, but nerves will be heightened on both sides because the polls have been extremely volatile, ranging even within the past week from one showing a 29-point Clinton lead to another indicating an 8-point advantage for Sanders.

Clinton will be emphasizing what her team sees as Sanders’s vulnerabilities in the next seven days, particularly the question marks over how much of his agenda he could actually achieve if elected. The lessons of 2008 have also led the Clinton camp to put much more resources and infrastructure in place in Iowa this time. 

If that pays off on caucus night, she could nip Sanders’s candidacy in the bud. But if she loses, she will need to ready herself for a long, and probably bitter, struggle for the nomination 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Can a Sanders surge carry him to victory?

During November and December, Sanders seemed likely to be consigned to a decent but distant second-place in Iowa — in mid-December, Clinton’s lead over him in the RCP average was around 17 points. But that picture has been transformed recently, and Sanders now has a real chance of winning.

An Iowa victory would be transformative for the Sanders campaign in a way that victory in New Hampshire would not. The Granite State was always a better bet for him, in part because his political base is next door, in Vermont. But an Iowa victory would bring the prospect of Sanders opening up a 2-0 lead over Clinton, a scenario that would shake up the political world.

Sanders will likely keep sounding the same messages in the next seven days as he has done since his campaign began. His elbows have become sharper recently, and that trend will likely continue as well. 

Most of all, though, Sanders needs an influx of new caucusgoers and a big turnout across the board from liberal Democrats. 

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley

O’Malley matters only in so far as he might impact the Clinton-Sanders race. He polls at only around 5 percent in Iowa. In many precincts, his supporters will not reach the threshold of viability, and so they can either go home or join up with one of the two major candidates. 

One question is whether O’Malley might send any smoke signals as to whom he would like them to choose as their second preference.

Beyond that, unless O’Malley dramatically outperforms expectations, his exit from the race will likely come sooner rather than later.