It is not clear how much of an effort Romney or Perry will make in Iowa in the next few months. They may both be content to allow Bachmann to win her victory there, and avoid the embarrassment of campaigning and then losing in the state. Romney is expected to win New Hampshire easily in the first-in-the-nation primary on January 24. This suggests that the real competitive tests will come later — Nevada and South Carolina on January 28, Florida on January 31, and then 14 primaries and caucuses on Super Tuesday, February 7.
Romney finished second in 2008 in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida, the last three defeats at the hands of McCain, all by narrow margins. Perry will compete to some extent with Romney on the good governance, establishment side of the race, but more against Bachman for the social conservative/tea party vote. Pawlenty’s likely early disappearance from the race is good news for Romney, since the former Minnesota governor had positioned himself as a more conservative challenger to Romney. How well Perry will fare is the big unknown. He has a record as a very successful fundraiser, though in prior statewide Texas races, a significant amount of the money he raised came from donors who gave $100,000 or more . In presidential campaigns, the limit for individual contributions is $2,500, though unlimited amounts can be given to support groups not formally associated with the campaign.
The contested states in the 2012 general election are likely to be in the South (Virginia, North Carolina, Florida), the Southwest (Colorado, Nevada), and primarily the Midwest and Great Lakes states (Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania). The nomination contest will demonstrate whether the GOP candidate has national appeal, or more regional appeal. Romney will try to run as the candidate who has national appeal and the best chance in the general election. Perry will run as the governor of the state whose economy has the best record in job creation, and as the candidate who can extend that record to the nation. Economic policy is likely to dominate the race — both for the nomination and in the general election. Iowa is a state where the social issues are a bigger differentiator among the candidates and count for more in the caucuses. The straw poll is not a serious test even on that score.
Finally, a word on Ron Paul. The Republicans need to keep Paul in the party, and avoid a third-party distraction. I think Paul will stay in the race to advance his isolationist, kill-the-Federal-Reserve ideas, but I think his real aim may be to keep the Paul name alive in national GOP circles, until his son makes a more serious run in some future year.
UPDATE: Pawlenty Ends White House Bid