By Alan Fisher
It is just six days to the Iowa caucus, the first real test of the seven Republicans hoping to win their party’s presidential nomination for the 2012 election.
Karl Rove, the man who masterminded George Bush’s election victories, has described the current battle for the heart of the Republican party as “the most unpredictable, rapidly shifting, and often downright inexplicable primary race I’ve ever witnessed”.
Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher, who will be in Iowa, looks at the candidates and tries to predict where they might finish.
Michelle Bachman hopes her Iowa roots- she was born in the state - might give her an advantage when people make their decision on January 3. She briefly topped opinion polls in the summer, but her support has faded and she needs a good result, certainly top three, if she’s to continue.
Supported by the rightwing Tea party she has spent time on the campaign trail constantly hammering President Obama and his handling of the economy.
A former tax lawyer, she is the mother of five and fostered 23 other children which she often mentions on the campaign trail. A committed Christian, she says she found God at the age of 16; she is anti-abortion and against the teaching of evolution.
Those closest to her say she is much smarter than she comes across in the media and has the ability to engage and electrify crowds who turn up to see her.
Now a member of Congress for Minnesota, her performance in the later debates has improved her polling figures but she’s still likely to finish outside the top three.
Likely final position - 6th
Newt Gingrich is the self proclaimed "best debater in the party" and it’s his performances in the series of TV debates which have turned him into front-runner for the Republican nomination.
A former speaker of the House of Representatives, he helped fashion the Contract with America which in 1994 gave his party control of congress for the first time in more than 40 years.
But Republicans took the blame for government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 and paid the price in 1998 when they were hammered at the polls. Exit polls suggested voters greatly disliked Gingrich who was forced to step down.
His campaign for the presidency was almost over before it began when senior staff quit, complaining they didn’t think Gingrich was working hard enough. He opted to continue but has struggled in terms of finance and organisation.
Attacks from other candidates in the past few weeks have hit his poll ratings. And analysts believe his past - he’s been divorced twice and was fined for ethics violations while speaker of the house - may not play well with the Republican party’s conservative base.
As a former history professor, he’ll know the only former house speaker to be elected president was James Polk, in 1844.
Likely final position - 4rd
Jon Huntsman is a former Republican governor of Utah and the son of a billionaire. He also served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to China, a position which has caused more than a few difficult moments during his campaign.
He has chosen to present his two years in Bejiing as loyal service to his country rather than to the president’s policies - but it leaves him vulnerable to criticism.
One of two Mormons in the field, he served in Ronald Reagan’s White House and while in his early 30s, was appointed ambassador to Singapore.
His tax plan - based on what he did during his time in the governor’s mansion in Utah - has been given hearty endorsements by a number of influential organisations, including the Wall Street Journal. And with his business, diplomatic and administrative experience, he’s regarded by the Democrats as a genuine threat.
Yet he has failed to ignite Republican voters. He lags in single figures in the opinion polls, with most people saying they don’t even know who he is.
Huntsman has refused to do much campaigning in Iowa and his moderate positions on climate change and social issues such as same-sex marriage are unlikely to appeal to the state’s core Republican voters.
Likely final position - 7th
Ron Paul has emerged in recent days as a potential winner in Iowa. The Texas congressman has consistently polled in the middle of the Republican pack and can call on a young, committed following. His fund-raising is behind only the big hitters, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.
The 76-year-old is best known for his anti war positions, arguing America should not be "the policeman of the world" and no longer get involved in the affairs of other countries.
He has argued with the other candidates over their positions on Iran’s nuclear programme.
He is committed to cutting government departments and lowering taxes.
He unsuccessfully ran for president in 1988 on the Libertarian ticket and was involved in the early stages of the Republican nomination fight last time around.
His campaign has suffered a blow in recent days with the emergence of newsletters published in his name more than 20 years ago which have been described as "homophobic, anti Semitic and racist".
The obstetrician denied direct involvement in the newsletters. He has disavowed them stating simply: "I didn’t write them".
While he remains outside the mainstream of US politics, Iowa always throws up a surprise in some form, and Dr Paul is hoping it will be him.
Likely final position - 2nd
Rick Perry reportedly had to be talked into entering the presidential race by his wife and declared his candidacy in August. He quickly soared to the top of the polls and pulled in significant amounts of money from Conservative republicans who believed he could be an alternative to front runner Mitt Romney.
But the Texas governor’s support leaked away due to a series of poor debate performances including the moment when he tried to recall the three government departments he would close, could name only two and after floundering for some time could only punctuate the awfulness of the moment with an "oops".
He hopes his record in creating jobs and reigning in budgets will help attract supports in the caucuses while his opposition to abortion, even in cases of incest and rape will rally evangelical Christian voters to his cause.
Likely final position - 5th
Mitt Romney has been at or near the top of the opinion polls since he declared his candidacy, and he’s watched patiently as each new challenger has flared and faded.
The former governor of Massachusetts spent lots of time and money in Iowa during his 2008 White House bid, but failed to win. It damaged him greatly. This time, he’s paid fleeting visits, deliberately lowering expectations.
He hopes his business background will convince Americans he is the man to help the recovery.
But many Republican voters view him suspiciously. First, there is his religion. He’s a Mormon, a branch of Christianity few outsiders really understand. And then they wonder if he’s a real conservative, pointing to his liberal record while governor of what was and is an overwhelmingly Democratic state.
He signed into law a healthcare plan which many say was the blueprint for President Obama’s signature legislation which is loathed and opposed by Republicans.
Other candidates have consistently been urged or invited to challenge him - often from the right wing of the party.
His performance in the TV debates has been solid if unspectacular, but many have commented that he looks the most "presidential" of all the Republican candidates, and he consistently comes on top of the Republicans most likely to win support from independents and strongly challenge Obama.
Mitt Romney may not be the candidate most Republicans want but many believe eventually, he’ll be the one they get.
Likely final position - 1st
Rick Santorum’s last election outing ended in defeat. Trying to hold his senate in Pennsylvania seat in 2006, he lost heavily.
However, he is the candidate most often spoken of in Iowa as the possible dark horse in the race. He took up his senate seat in 1994 after four years in congress and quickly built up a reputation as a fierce opponent of Iran, abortion and gay rights.
Those socially conservative credentials are thought to play well with many of the state’s Republican Caucus goers.
His fund-raising has been poor, but he’s spent a lot of time in Iowa and was the first candidate this time around to visit all 99 counties in the state.
Latest polls predict a Santorum surge and he might just gain enough momentum to keep his campaign going.
Likely Final position - 3rd
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