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Iowa caucuses: 3 outcomes that could matter

January 3, 2012 | 12:47 pm

Iowa Mitt Romney
Do the Iowa caucuses matter?

The answer: It depends.

You know all the reasons they shouldn't matter.  Iowa's a small state. Its electorate isn't representative of the nation. Tuesday night's caucuses won't even determine Iowa's votes at the Republican National Convention; they merely produce nonbinding advice to the state party.

LIVE COVERAGE: Iowa GOP caucuses

Still, the caucuses will record the year's first actual votes cast by citizens who have listened to the candidates, watched their television commercials and considered their arguments. Say what you will about Iowa caucus-goers -- they are serious about their jobs as the nation's first voters.

Here are three outcomes that could matter:

--Mitt Romney wins big. Only a few weeks ago, Romney was still pretending he didn't care what happened in Iowa. If he collects, say, 30% of the votes and bests all his rivals by a healthy margin, he's going to look increasingly like the presumptive nominee.

--Romney loses big. If the Romney camp's optimism has been misplaced and the former Massachusetts governor finishes in fourth place, he's not going to look very presumptive after all.

--The non-Romney, non-Ron Paul right coalesces behind one candidate -- most likely Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich. Until now, the Republican race has mostly been a search by conservatives for an alternative to Romney. Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Gingrich each had a turn, but each faded. If conservatives continue to divide their votes, Romney should have an easier time winning the nomination. But if they unite around Santorum or Gingrich, we could see a two-man race that might last awhile.

Here's an outcome that will matter less: A messy four-way tie. That would merely send the contest on, unclarified, to its next stops in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. But then, why should Iowans have all the fun?

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--Doyle McManus

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney holds a campaign event at the Temple for Performing Arts in Des Moines on Jan. 3. Credit: Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

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