This has been one of the most interesting and unusual primary seasons in recent memory.
Because the seemingly never-ending series of debates has replaced the traditional role of hyper-expensive, wall-to-wall TV advertising, the candidates are no longer tiered by finances or viability.
This reality-show quality has allowed virtually all the candidates - save Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum - the opportunity to be the "anti-Mitt" flavor of the month, at least for a brief moment in time. And their turn may come yet.
Don't be surprised to see Ron Paul win Iowa; his state organization is the best by far, with Santorum placing in the top three. There's a real possibility that Newt Gingrich comes in third or fourth in Iowa, which would be a death knell for his campaign – so much for second acts.
Huntsman is hoping for a similar surprise showing in New Hampshire, where polls show that he's beginning to get traction.
My guess is that after Mitt Romney shows well in Iowa (top three) and wins New Hampshire, the field will be narrowed to Romney, Paul (who will likely stay in it for the long haul), and one other candidate. It's unlikely to be Rick Perry; he simply won't have the finances to continue beyond New Hampshire, nor Michelle Bachmann (a fifth place finish in Iowa will doom her). It's possible that Santorum emerges as the conservative alternative to Romney and Paul, though that would require a top two finish in Iowa and a better-than-expected showing in New Hampshire. Gingrich's lackluster showing in Iowa will take the wind from his sails and he'll be finished after a weak performance in New Hampshire.
But don't count Huntsman out. Outside of Romney, he's been the most consistent performer in the debates, and recently he's picked up some key endorsements. Like McCain in 2008, he's putting all his eggs in one basket and has quietly put together a solid organization in New Hampshire. It's very possible that he places a strong second to Romney in New Hampshire and then competes in Florida.
Despite all this, it will still take a straight-flush for someone to knock off Romney. He has the money, organization, endorsements, and experience to run the tables. Plus, the schedule favors him with early "Romney-friendly" states such as Florida, Maine, Nevada, and Minnesota. It'll be over on February 28 when he wins Michigan. Paul might hang around through the spring and early summer, but nobody will pay attention.
Nick Ragone is a partner at Ketchum and director of its Washington, DC, office.