- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 29, 2015

Donald Trump still holds a lead in the Republican presidential polls in Iowa, but Ben Carson is fading and Sen. Ted Cruz is catching up fast as the first-in-the-nation caucuses prepare for another wild finish.

Four years ago at Thanksgiving, it was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who had climbed to the top of the polls, unseating pizza baron Herman Cain who dropped out of the race altogether. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, the eventual Iowa winner, was languishing in the low single digits.

It is a reminder of how fast things can change as the candidates jockey for position heading into the Feb. 1 caucuses.

“As in any campaign, things can and do change rapidly near the end,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

The Feb. 1 caucuses are scheduled later than they have been in years as the two major parties try to regain control of the process.

After the 2012 Iowa caucuses nearly bled into Christmas in 2011 and a chaotic calendar produced a series of bizarre outcomes, Republican Party leaders set the schedule so Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina were orderly. The rest of the map is compressed into several major showdown dates.

Roughly two months before the caucuses, the Republican race has more questions than answers: Can Mr. Trump continue to defy political gravity, and can former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush regain his footing and live up to the family name?

It also remains to be seen whether Mr. Cruz can sustain the coalition of conservatives he is trying to build and whether Sen. Marco Rubio will emerge as the unifying candidate for the Republican establishment and grass-roots conservatives.

For now, Mr. Trump remains atop the field with his support firmly in the 20s. Mr. Carson had surmounted him, peaking at above 30 percent just a month ago before sliding. Now it’s Mr. Cruz on the rise, reaching past 20 percent in a couple of pre-Thanksgiving surveys.

“To paraphrase from former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, ‘In politics, 24 hours is a lifetime,’” said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University. “This is such an unstable year that maybe just 24 minutes is a lifetime.”

Thanksgiving understandably put a lid on the race.

“It’s hard for campaigns to punch through the holiday distractions,” Mr. Yepsen said. “It’s also tougher for the media consultants in a campaign because they’ve got to be careful their messages don’t seem off base or too harsh during what is a religious time for many people. An ad too harsh can backfire.”

The same could happen over Christmas and New Year’s — a major change from 2011 and 2012, when Mr. Santorum made his surge, based on visits to each of Iowa’s 99 counties.

This year, the promise of a full month between New Year’s Day and the caucuses should create some breathing space for candidates and voters alike.

“Remember, there’s the whole month of January, and I think a lot of this campaign will go on hold until then,” Mr. Yepsen said. “The early deciders have made up their minds. Others, who want to meet candidates or see more debates will just wait a little longer.”

“Experienced caucus-goers in both parties have learned they should wait to see how things play out to the very end,” he said. “You’ve got more debates and you’ve also got unexpected events, like the Paris attacks, that can change the narrative quickly. You can see that on the GOP side with the large number of people who tell pollsters they could be persuaded to change their minds, even if they have a preference.”

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