WASHINGTON -- Iowa voters are having a hard time making up their minds, although it appears they've boiled down their top choices to three candidates.
Nationally, too, this has turned into a three-man race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination -- with this proviso: One of them, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, longtime champion of the libertarian cause, stands no chance of being the GOP's nominee, though he has the money, political base and determination to stay in the race all the way to the California primary in June.
The race for the party's nod -- which now looks like it'll be a grueling marathon right up until the GOP convention in August -- is effectively between former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. The odds seem to favor the former businessman and venture capital investor over the mercurial and often unpredictable former congressman from Georgia.
The seemingly endless campaign in Iowa has been one of the longest-running soap operas in American politics, with a cast of characters taking turns as front-runner, only to fall by the wayside.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann won Iowa's early straw poll and won rave reviews for her feisty performance in the first debate, but her appeal faded and she dropped into the low single digits. An Iowa voter who liked her from the start, then changed her mind, said, "She has kind of an annoying voice."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a last-minute entry, sprinted to the front as soon as he entered the race, but turned out to be a mumbling, bumbling, remedial debater who couldn't remember the third government department he wanted to abolish.
Businessman Herman Cain was the political beneficiary of Perry's demise and was flying high for a time, until he was driven from the race by a phalanx of women who accused him of sexual harassment and, in one case, a long-running affair.
So now it comes down to these two candidates who are the "last men standing." Each of them has his own political problems, but Gingrich arguably has more of them than Romney.
Gingrich, an inexhaustible fountain of policy solutions and ideas, was left for dead early in this primary cycle, after his entire campaign staff quit in disgust when he took his wife on a cruise of the Greek islands not long after he entered the race.
It was a painful reminder of his unfocused, roller-coaster term as speaker when his leadership circle plotted a coup to topple him from power.
Gingrich is the ultimate Washington insider who was on the payroll of Freddie Mac, the home mortgage giant at the heart of the subprime mortgage collapse that led to the Great Recession. He has lots of other baggage, too, from a notorious global warming TV ad with former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, not to mention three marriages.
But he valiantly fought back into political contention with a dazzling display of well-honed speaking skills in the debates, fueled by his encyclopedic memory of history and politics. His numbers rapidly zoomed ahead of his rivals.
Still, some of his ideas have gotten him into trouble, particularly his zany view that federal judges can and should be hauled before Congress to explain their rulings, and if they refuse, subpoenaed or even arrested.
This clearly violates the separation of powers doctrine set forth by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, which states in Article III: "The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme court." It doesn't say the judges can be forced to go before Congress when their decisions disturb lawmakers. Federal judges explain their decisions in their rulings.
Suddenly, his poll numbers began to tumble as a volley of attack ads by Romney and Paul hammered Gingrich as unstable, while Romney's and Paul's numbers rose.
Gingrich's campaign suffered further damage this past week when it was announced he had not secured the 10,000 valid signatures needed to get on the primary ballot in Virginia, where he lives. That magnified Gingrich's other weakness: lack of organization.
Romney, who has the best organization in the race, has struggled throughout his candidacy, too, as the GOP's broad conservative base saw him as someone who was too moderate for their tastes. Signing a health care bill the White House said was the model for Obamacare hasn't helped.
"Can we trust a Massachusetts Moderate to enact a conservative agenda?" the Gingrich campaign asked.
Romney's more aggressive TV ad campaign in Iowa has emphasized his conservatism -- vowing to cut the size of government, shrink spending and balance the budget.
His strong suit is his career as a businessman and an investor in enterprises that created jobs. He told a college student at a recent rally that if he is elected, "you will have a job when you graduate."
Still, his polls in Iowa have shown little if any growth for months, though he's moved ahead there in the past week. A recent Rasmussen poll showed 25 percent support for Romney, 20 percent for Paul and 17 percent for Gingrich.
Notably, Romney's support has risen in New Hampshire, where a Boston Globe poll showed him with 39 percent, while Gingrich and Paul were tied at 17 percent each.
In the meantime, just days before Iowa voters meet in 1,784 local precinct caucuses across the state to cast ballots, many are still undecided. The fact that half of all Iowans "are telling pollsters they could change their minds is unprecedented," said state chairman Matt Strawn.
But don't expect Iowa's arcane and lengthy delegate selection process to settle this three-man race, though it will winnow the field significantly, as it almost always does.