Salena Zito

With fewer than 20 days until the Iowa caucuses, three men in the Republican Party stand to get their tickets punched out of the Hawkeye State.

While everything is still in flux, those likely winners will be Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson.

Notably missing out on Iowa’s political rocket fuel is national frontrunner Rudy Giuliani.

While most political insiders and pundits have known for months that Giuliani had no plans to compete in Iowa, the general American electorate probably does not. Known to not pay attention to the early political pontificating, the average voter may wonder where the former New York mayor is when the big news the next day is not about him.

Giuliani went into the campaign season with an unconventional strategy that quickly became all the buzz: Skip Iowa, be respectable in New Hampshire, then head to delegate-rich Florida. The strategy for his campaign was never about momentum; it was always about maximizing his delegate count.

An unconventional Republican primary candidate, Giuliani knew he would be shunned by the ultraconservative activists in early states. His personal Iowa is Super-Duper Tuesday, Feb. 5, which has the motherlode of delegates, who happen to be moderate Republicans. Sounds perfect, right?

Maybe. If he can hold on. But right now, the Giuliani story is that his gamble is quietly becoming the incredible shrinking campaign.

“From a historical perspective,” says Matt Lebo, a political science professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook, “his strategy is clearly a losing strategy.”

The only thing that can save him, Lebo explains, is the campaign calendar he has gambled on: “The question that needs to be asked as part of this gamble is, did Rudy overestimate the strength of his support in terms of how attached are the voters who prefer him?”

Lebo says that if Giuliani’s supporters are very attached, he might withstand the early losses, “although, more likely, they will abandon ship after seeing him lose.”

If Giuliani’s support is soft, based more on his prospects than his perspectives, then significant losses in Iowa and New Hampshire -- unrepresentative of the general electorate as they are -- may have a snowball effect in the post-New Hampshire primaries.

“The prospects of Giuliani being eclipsed by his rope-a-dope strategy is in the early rounds,” says Professor Bert Rockman, head of the Purdue University Department of Political Science. “Giuliani needs to have several candidates kept alive in the early contests because he is, at best, going to be a plurality winner.”

Six months ago, Giuliani’s strategy was the fad and, in all fairness, it was the only shot he could take based on his lack of appeal to early-primary activists. He prepared the ground by creating early-loss assumptions, making it easy to say, “Hey, everybody knew this from Day One.”

“It may not work,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, “but it gives him a shot for a comeback starting in Florida on Jan. 29.

“While things aren’t looking too bright for Rudy just now, we’ve already seen that this primary season is a roller-coaster.”

Aside from the lack of positive ink and early-primary momentum, Giuliani also runs the risk of a death by a thousand cuts from lethal opposition research -- distracting him from making his case in later primary states.

Each campaign is trying to write the next political-history lesson, to establish conventional wisdom before it happens. Truth is, no one knows if Giuliani’s gamble will work.

The key remains Florida -- a state where a new Rasmussen Reports poll shows Giuliani's once solid lead has sunk to third behind Huckabee and Romney. Lose there, and it’s over for “America’s Mayor.”

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.