POLLSTERS ARE considered wizards of odds, but they seem flummoxed by the presidential contest.
"It's too close to call."
The race is in flux, but this much is predictable: two weeks from today, Iowa voters will winnow the field of candidates.
Only four of eight Republican candidates and three of seven Democrats will likely emerge with the credibility and capital to wage a strong campaign in New Hampshire and beyond.
Iowa's winner will claim a "great upset victory." The second-place finisher will claim a victory over "expectations." The third-placer will claim a "moral victory." And the fourth-placer will claim, "I'm thrilled with this showing since I rarely campaigned here. Frankly, I'm deathly allergic to corn."
Then, predictably, other candidates will start to drop out. Like the 10 little Indians - oops - like the 10 height-challenged Native Americans, they will disappear one after another.
The media focus is on the front-runners, but early quitters could change the dynamic of this contest - depending on who exits, when, and whether they endorse someone. So, let's speculate . . .
Which candidates are most likely to quit once it's obvious they're going to lose? Let's rank them, with the top being most likely to exit promptly, down to those least likely to quit.
Hunter, the little-known and less-remembered congressman, must realize he's doomed. After he concedes, maybe he will endorse someone who would later consider appointing him secretary of defense.
Thompson played President Ulysses Grant in a movie, but doesn't seem to enjoy playing a mere candidate. If voters pan him, he might pack up his pickup, endorse his old friend McCain, and head home.
Tancredo is a solid 1 percent in the polls, but if his support slips he will withdraw and declare a moral victory for having made illegal immigration a cutting issue. If he feels bitter about being rejected, he may announce he's moving to Mexico.
McCain knows what it's like to lose a nomination and will not want to prolong the agony if things go sour. If he fails in New Hampshire, he'll exit and endorse his fallback preference, Mr. Anyone But Romney.
Romney has a venture capitalist's pride in cutting his losses, so if he faces electoral bankruptcy he'll quit, then reposition his brand for the vice presidency.
If Huckabee decides he doesn't have a prayer, he'll give a concession sermon, support someone other than Romney, and lust in his heart for the vice presidency.
Giuliani is unlikely to exit quickly because his strategy is to accept early losses, then win big-state primaries. If he fizzles, he'll endorse a non-Romney.
Paul has a loyal libertarian base that will fund him through thin and thinner. He may never support the eventual GOP nominee, let alone exit early. Besides, now he owns a campaign blimp. He can't just tether it to his garage and retire.
Democrats, in order of their being most likely to quit if things look bleak:
An ambitious candidate is said to have "fire in the belly." Dodd has embers. He'll soon return to the Senate.
Biden is realistic. He knows when to stop humming "The Impossible Dream." He is too collegial to endorse someone and thus alienate other candidates.
Richardson might endorse Clinton, hoping she would pick him for vice president.
Edwards must realize that if he loses Iowa decisively, he will not have the money to continue.
Obama has the resources to continue if he loses in Iowa, and wouldn't want to lose the respect of his supporters by quitting too soon. But neither would he want to stay in too long and be seen as a poor loser, because he could run as the favorite next time if the 2008 Democratic nominee loses.
Kucinich won't give up. He's a true believer and a "happy warrior." Unlike John Edwards, he got his populist reputation the old-fashioned way: he earned it.
This is Clinton's shot to make "herstory." She will not quit unless she hears, "Elvis has left the building and is headed to the all-you-can-eat buffet."
Regardless of when these colorful candidates drop out, we'll miss them. They have made the race interesting and entertaining.
But let's not be nostalgic until they actually quit. We wouldn't want to discourage them.
Todd Domke is a Boston area Republican political analyst, public relations strategist, and author.