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.