Phase One, most of the potential candidates made the decision of whether to enter the race, and if so, they got their operations up and running. During the summer, Phase Two, the field took shape and the candidates plotted out their campaign strategies. Then, in Phase Three, the candidates participated in numerous debates, where they were put to the test for the first time. Some candidates, like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, succeeded. Others, like Rick Perry, fell far short of expectations. And most, like Jon Huntsman and Michele Bachmann, couldn't gain any traction.
Now, as the Christmas season comes to a close, Phase Four has begun. Before, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire were the only ones watching. From this point forward, the rest of the country will start tuning in. Whatever the result of the Iowa Caucus, it will make headlines. Then it will be New Hampshire, then South Carolina, then Florida.
Phase Three narrowed the field to just a few candidates who have a decent chance of winning early states. The polls show Romney, Gingrich, and Ron Paul within striking distance in Iowa. In New Hampshire, Romney is alone at the top. South Carolina will be influenced by the results of the previous two states: If Gingrich wins Iowa, he probably wins in South Carolina; if Gingrich fails in Iowa, he may still win South Carolina but it will be closer. Florida will be decisive if Romney wins there, otherwise Romney will be preparing for a long campaign against Gingrich.
If the minor candidates fail to win any of the first three states, they will start dropping out. An Iowa-centric candidate like Rick Santorum may even drop out after failing to win the first contest. Huntsman may drop out after losing New Hampshire. Some, like Paul and perhaps Bachmann, are running to make a point, and will stay in until the bitter end.
The debates were critical in Phase Three, and they will still be important in Phase Four. There will be one or two debates held before each of the contests after Iowa. With candidates dropping out and debate sponsors setting stricter requirements for participation, the leading candidates will have many opportunities for one-on-one arguments. The two frontrunners today, Romney and Gingrich, are both skilled debaters. Now we'll find out how good they are at getting votes.