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After Iowa, How Far Can the Candidates Go?

There were three strong finishers in the Republican half of the Iowa presidential caucuses Tuesday night.

A surprising and new top-tier emerged in Tuesday's caucuses in Iowa. There was the winner, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney; the close runner-up, former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, who finished third.  

Still, the Iowa caucuses are not known for their predictive value, but for their ability to narrow the field.  

Michele Bachmann finished sixth and announced that she is suspending her campaign.

"And so last night, the people of Iowa spoke with a very clear voice and so I have decided to stand aside," she said.

Jennifer Lawless, a professor at American University in Washington, says Iowa also sent a signal to the victor.

"Mitt Romney won, but he still only has 25 percent of that vote.  He will probably do a little better than that percentage in New Hampshire, but that's a part of, an artifact not only of him being from [the region] New England but also fewer candidates in the race.  And so Iowa sent a clear message that he still has not really sealed the deal with the base," she said.

And it is not only the base that Romney has to win over.  Even though he is widely viewed as the strongest contender in a battle against President Barack Obama, he is not embraced by his conservative Republican rivals.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who finished fourth in Iowa, views it this way.

"But let's be clear. One of the things which became obvious in the last few weeks in Iowa is that there will be a great debate in the Republican Party before we are prepared to have a great debate with Barack Obama," Gingrich said.

Gingrich is continuing in the race, but Lawless says his words suggest he is abandoning his goal of being his party's nominee.

"Instead it seems that he's now going to be a single-minded seeker of destroying Mitt Romney, and he began that campaign last night," she said.

Socially conservative voters who have been split among Texas Governor Rick Perry, Bachmann and Gingrich might now rally around second-place finisher Rick Santorum.  He surged in the polls only days ahead of the caucuses, thriving on evangelical support, but that top-tier status might be short-lived.

"He hasn't had the opportunity to fall yet, but he hasn't been vetted.  He hasn't been the target of negative ads, and Mitt Romney's venom hasn't been directed at him yet," Lawless said.  

Romney is expected to do well in the New Hampshire primary January 10.  Santorum is expected to do well later this month in conservative South Carolina's primary.  

But what chance has Ron Paul in his third run for the presidency?  

Not much, says Lawless, who authored the book "Becoming a Candidate".

"It is virtually impossible to imagine a path to the presidency for Ron Paul," Lawless said.

While Paul has fervent supporters, his isolationist views and calls for a radically smaller government do not have broad appeal among many Republicans.  That leaves more room for the front-runner Mitt Romney and the other candidates.

Click on each candidate's photo for a brief summary:

Texas Governor Rick Perry has held the top leadership position in one of the largest U.S. states since George W. Bush left the post to assume the U.S. presidency in 2000.

He pledges to reduce the size of the federal government. Perry's plan includes eliminating some federal agencies, such as the Departments of Commerce, Education, and Energy.

Perry is campaigning on economic policy, holding up his record in Texas as an example of how he could improve the national economy. He has been an outspoken opponent of the Obama administration's health care reform plan. He is a conservative Christian and has signed several state laws making it more difficult for a woman to obtain an abortion. He also supports the death penalty.

In 1988 he supported the unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. Perry switched his affiliation to the Republican Party a year later.

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