By Niall Stanage
01/25/16 – 06:00 AM EST
The 2016 presidential candidates are entering the final sprint to the Iowa caucuses, which take place one week from today.
The fight for outright victory is fierce in both parties, with Bernie Sanders apparently gaining steam against Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, while Donald Trump and Ted Cruz duke it out on the Republican side.
But the Iowa caucuses are not only about who comes first. They have long served to winnow the number of contenders, something of particular relevance given the large Republican field this year.
Here’s what the candidates will be hoping to accomplish in the next seven days — and what their objectives will be on caucus night itself.
Businessman Donald Trump
Trump is now the definitive favorite for the Republican nomination, despite the fact that his demise has been predicted again and again.
Victory in Iowa is by no means assured for the real estate mogul. But he has bounced back into the lead in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) average of polls in the state after brief periods during which Ben Carson and, more recently, Cruz had displaced him.
Cruz is clearly his toughest competitor, in part because the Texan’s social conservatism looks to be a snugger fit than Trump’s braggadocio for the sensibilities of Iowa Republicans.
Trump’s outsider cachet has gotten him this far, however. And he has played the media game masterfully, most recently in his announcement, at an Iowa rally, of an endorsement from 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The Palin event kept Trump in command of media coverage and starved his rivals of publicity at a crucial stage.
Now, he needs to avoid any last minute erosions in his standing and prove that his campaign has the ground game to meet the challenges of a caucus system.
If he emerges the winner on Feb 1., he is expected to roll on to victory in the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary, where he holds a bigger polling lead. From there, he would be hard to stop.
But if Trump underperforms, his enemies will seize on that as evidence that his bubble is finally bursting.
Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas)
Cruz has a very real shot at winning Iowa. He led in some polls of Republican voters in the state as recently as last week.
To that end, he can be expected to pound home his message of vigorous, anti-establishment conservatism during the next week on subjects from national security to the role of religion in public life.
It would be a blow to Cruz’s pride if he were bested by Trump, with whom he has been jousting heatedly recently. But a second-place finish would be far from fatal. His longer-term hope is that the multi-candidate field is ultimately narrowed to a two-horse race between Trump and himself. Iowa looks set to help him toward that goal, unless he significantly underperforms.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)
Rubio is in third place in the RCP average in Iowa, but both Trump and Cruz have more than twice as much support.
For Rubio, the real battle is not with the candidates in front of him but with those immediately behind. His niche is as a conservative who is purportedly more electable than Trump or Cruz and more acceptable to centrists. If someone else with similar appeal were to finish ahead of him in Iowa, he could be in trouble.
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