December may mean sparking lights and holiday parties, but this year it also means all eyes on Iowa as the Republican presidential contenders make their final pitch to the caucus-goers of the Hawkeye State with frenzied campaigning and a pair of debates - including a final showdown, hosted by FOX News.
The Iowa caucuses will be held on Jan. 3, 2012, and the outcome is far from certain. While the new national frontrunner, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has dominated recent Iowa polls, the fluid nature of the race and the importance of local organization in the state mean that Iowa's delegates are still very much for grabs. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Herman Cain and Texas Rep. Ron Paul are all top-tier contenders. And other candidates who have focused heavily on Iowa, like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann are all capable of roiling the race.
Because of a scheduling feud among early primary states, Iowa moved its caucuses to the first week of the New Year to preserve its status as the first nominating contest in the land. That complicated things for the campaigns, because Christmas falls just nine days before the caucuses. Instead of making their closing arguments at town hall meetings or jabbing at their opponents in attack ads, the candidates will have to cool their heels while Iowans gather for holiday celebrations.
That means that candidates and campaigns have only the three weeks of the month to work before Iowans start to tune out for the holidays. They must make every day count.
On Dec. 3, the winner of the 2008 Iowa GOP caucuses, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, will give several of the contenders the chance to make their pitches with a special edition of his FOX News show "Huckabee." Gingrich, Romney, Bachmann, Paul, Santorum and Perry have all reportedly agreed to face questions from a panel of conservative state attorneys general. The following week, the Republican Jewish Coalition will host a Washington, D.C. forum on Israeli relations and other topics.
The next big moment for caucus-goers comes on Dec. 10 when ABC News and the Des Moines Register host a GOP debate, with particular focus on Iowa-centric issues. But the last word in debates before voters begin to have their say comes Dec. 15 when FOX News and the Republican Party of Iowa host a contest in Sioux City.
In this election cycle driven largely by debates, the FOX News/Iowa GOP showdown will give Iowans a last look at how the frontrunners perform under pressure and if any of the second-tier candidates deserve another look. After that, it's 10 days to Christmas, 18 days to the caucuses and 25 days until the New Hampshire primary, with contests rolling on for months thereafter.
The Dec. 15 debate will be a pivot point for one of the wildest nominating contests in modern American politics.
Back in Washington, Congress and President Obama will do their parts to remind voters of the stakes of the election as the final month of the year provides a series of battles over spending, benefits and how to avert a government shutdown.
The stopgap legislation currently funding federal operations is set to expire on Dec. 16, but as the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate battle over how to keep the government open, lawmakers are also debating a raft of other deadline-driven proposals. The fight over the president's payroll tax holiday, his request to again extend long-term unemployment benefits and a looming automatic reduction in payments to Medicare providers all have members of Congress scrambling to beat a Jan. 1 deadline.
Adding to the stress for lawmakers and Obama is that the next few weeks are a crucial fundraising period. For incumbents, the final quarter of 2011 is the best chance to scare away potential challengers and build a campaign war chest before they have to start spending some serious cash.