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The Brief: Jan. 3, 2012

Tonight, the voting begins, and two Texans' political futures hang in the balance.

Gov. Rick Perry gives his last campaign speech of 2011 in Boone, Iowa, on Dec. 31, 2011.

The Big Conversation:

Tonight, the voting begins, and two Texans' political futures hang in the balance.

Up to 120,000 Iowans are expected to gather at 1,774 precincts across the state to cast the first votes of the presidential primary cycle. (Need a reminder of how exactly the caucuses work? The Des Moines Register's got you covered.)

Candidates on Monday delivered their closing arguments in stops across the state. Rick Perry spent the day attacking his rivals, touting a large group of Texas officials and volunteers who had followed him to the Hawkeye State, and asking voters to ignore polls showing him headed toward a fifth-place finish. Ron Paul, who spent the weekend at home in Texas, returned to the campaign trail Monday with son Rand, the U.S. senator from Kentucky. Polls have shown Paul vying for a first-place finish with Mitt Romney and a surging Rick Santorum.

Final polling projections, compiled by data guru Nate Silver of The New York Times' FiveThirtyEight, predict a narrow victory for Romney over Paul and Santorum:

1. Mitt Romney (22 percent)
2. Ron Paul (21 percent)
3. Rick Santorum (19 percent)
4. Newt Gingrich (15 percent)
5. Rick Perry (10 percent)
6. Michele Bachmann (8 percent)
7. Jon Huntsman (4 percent)

A win for Romney, who has carefully tempered expectations in Iowa over the past year, would cement his front-runner status and send him riding high toward a likely win in New Hampshire next Tuesday. A victory for Paul, who has assembled one of the strongest ground organizations in the state since his 2008 run, could boost his already impressive fundraising but may vex Republicans convinced of his inability to secure the party's nomination. A win — or strong showing — for Santorum could position him as the clearest non-Romney alternative, upping his chances in states like evangelical-friendly South Carolina. For Perry, anything better than a fifth-place finish would qualify as a surprise — a sign of just how far the governor's political fortunes have fallen since August.

And while post-caucus campaign spin, as Silver notes, may ultimately play the most important role in determining the night's impact, weather and turnout will also figure prominently in the results. Bad weather is said to favor Paul, whose supporters will likely brave any conditions. Good weather would likely benefit Romney, whose support is seen as broad but less passionate.

Caucusing begins at 7 p.m.

Culled:

  • While campaigning in Iowa on Monday, Rick Perry expressed support for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's U.S. Senate bid, according to the Austin American-Statesman. While introducing two members of Congress who have endorsed him, Perry said, "They’re on the leading edge, and there’s more of those members of the United States Congress and the United States Senate — which David soon will be a member of, Lord willing." Though the statement fell short of an official nod, Perry, the Statesman notes, has rarely endorsed in competitive Republican primaries. 
  • Ron Paul's campaign on Monday hit back at Rick Santorum over claims that the congressman's supporters had orchestrated robocalls knocking Santorum over gun rights. "Rick Santorum should focus on explaining his horrible record on the Second Amendment rather than playing the blame game," Paul campaign chairman Jesse Benton told Politico. "His record on this, and so many other issues is so poor he can't stand up to real criticism."
  • The Houston Chronicle has an interview with Paul Sadler, the former state representative who may stand the best chance of securing the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate after former Gen. Ric Sanchez left the race in December. Experts say any Democrat will face a tough battle, but Sadler says he's ready for the fight. "I know these people," Sadler says of the Republican candidates. "I can do better than they can."

"And I do take a little offense when you run a story and you can’t tell me who is saying something that you’re using as a negative story. So don’t come to me and say, ‘Respond to this,’ and you’re either not willing or you don’t have a name."Rick Perry to Politico's Mike Allen on the recent (largely anonymously sourced) report on internal strife within the Perry campaign

Must-Read:

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