Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney are pictured in Iowa in this composite. | AP Photos


No matter who wins, Iowa will reshape the Republican presidential race one week from today — and almost certainly in ways that don’t adhere to any semblance of a traditional political script.

All the candidates dream finishing at the top of the pack, but where the losers place and whether they drop out or valiantly trudge ahead could be as significant as who comes in first.

The most recent example from political history: the narrowest of margins separated Fred Thompson and John McCain in the 2008 caucuses, but because Thompson barely claimed third he found a rationale to go forward, skip New Hampshire and make a final stand in South Carolina. That mattered — Thompson’s staying in the race resulted in a split conservative vote in South Carolina which snuffed out Mike Huckabee’s chances at the nomination and enabled McCain to score a critical win and boost before Florida.

In other words: The post-Iowa decision of a candidate who is otherwise politically dead can not only be relevant but even determinative.

And in this primary, where the unforeseen has been the norm, most every candidate has a chance to be an influential supporting actor if not the glamorous lead.

Ron Paul

If there’s an odds-on favorite to win Iowa at the moment, it’s the libertarian Texas congressman with a pair of assets unique in the field: His Iowa supporters are passionate and they are organized.

As it happens, Paul is also probably the candidate whose political fortunes are least dependent on the outcome in Iowa. Because he occupies a totally distinct space in the 2012 field, Paul can count on votes — and, just as important, donations — all the way through the California primary in June.

What Iowa could give Paul, however, is a shot at making the race closer in New Hampshire and subsequent caucus states — such as Nevada — where his campaign has already begun to organize. Internal Paul campaign polling already has him in the low 20 percent range in New Hampshire. The bigger Paul’s margin of victory in Iowa, the better the odds that he can rack up real delegates and embarrass Romney or another national front-runner as the race proceeds.

“A strong Iowa finish, combined with our organization and our support up there — I think we’re positioned to do very well in New Hampshire,” said Paul campaign chief Jesse Benton.

A Paul win in Iowa could also be a gift to Romney’s other would-be conservative challengers. To the chagrin of Paul’s supporters, a runner-up such as Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum could try to effectively nullify a victory by the 76-year-old congressman and argue that they can’t be counted out until they lose to a traditional Republican opponent.

Mitt Romney

The state that did so much to dash Romney’s 2008 White House hopes could go a long way to ensuring he’s the GOP nominee next year. If Romney captures the caucuses and then scores a win in New Hampshire, where he enjoys a double-digit lead, he’ll have done something that no other Republican hopeful has done in modern history and almost certainly be on his way to Tampa as the GOP standard-bearer.

If Romney does lose Iowa again, he’d prefer it be to Paul rather than Gingrich or one of his more traditional Republican rivals. Paul’s success in the caucuses and beyond would be an irritant to Romney’s nomination hopes but not an actual threat. Such has been made clear by Romney advisers who openly muse about the well-organized congressman’s strong Iowa prospects.

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