Campaign Laurels: The Iowa Bus Race for Third Place

As the shuffling polls in Iowa begin to settle two weeks before the caucus, three Republican candidates are zigzagging across the state hoping to capture enough votes to get noticed in the nominating contest.

While first and second place are likely to go to Ron Paul and Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich's onetime lead appears to have crumbled, opening up a race for third. In contention are Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum - who have all been shaking hands and tugging beards at coffee shops and Pizza Ranches around Iowa.

So how can we tell which candidates are getting the most out of  their bus tours? Here's a guide to the strengths and weaknesses of the three road runners:

  Michele Bachmann: Hello and Goodbye

Bachmann has vowed to visit all 99 Iowa counties before the caucus, a fatiguing feat known as "The Full Grassley" (because that's what Sen. Chuck Grassley does every year). That means that on some days, Bachmann is riding her bus to as many as 13 locales. She clearly outpaces Perry and Santorum, but as a result of her rapid meeting and greeting, she doesn't get to spend much time at each event (sometimes as few as 19 minutes) or see many people (at some as few as 11).

On Saturday, Bachmann raced to 13 campaign events as her bus racked up 300 miles on its odometer. At one of those stops, at the Cool Beans Coffee House in Estherville, Bachmann stuck around for 20 minutes before driving off to her next appearance. Though for what it's worth, the Estherville Daily News noted that she was the only candidate to visit the town twice.

For her speed-racer style with her eye on the prize of reaching all 99 counties, we award Bachmann the Badge of the Drive-By Campaigner.

  Rick Perry: Lines out the Door

The governor of Texas has a calmer approach - relatively.  But what Perry lacks in frequency he wins in crowd count. He's done fewer than half as many campaign events on his bus tour as Bachmann has, yet the rooms he's in are sometimes too small for his audiences.

In New Hampton, 125 people crowded into a meeting room at an event center to meet him. At a town hall at an opera house in Decorah, 160 showed up. In Charles City, 150 people walked in and out of a restaurant while he spoke. It's possible that by the time the caucus rolls around, Perry will have met more people than Bachmann has, just by being patient and making himself a rarer commodity.

For his steadiness and crowd-friendly manner, Perry gets the Standing-Room-Only Medal.

  Rick Santorum: Slow but Steady

Unfortunately for the GOP field's perennial straggler, Santorum can't compete with Bachmann's stamina or Perry's attractiveness. What he does have is consistency and a Galaxy Quest-like mantra of never giving up, low poll numbers be damned.

To his credit, Santorum was the first candidate to actually visit every county in Iowa. And now, he's finally seeing some reward. After breaking into double-digits in polls for the first time, Santorum earned the endorsements of two major religious leaders in Iowa. (His bus tour is called  Faith, Family and Freedom.)

Santorum's tour stops, about one-third as frequent as Bachmann's, are intimate. They include a house party (hosted by the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition), a house Christmas party and a smattering of "town halls," which draw about 30 people.

For his persistent jog at the back of the pack, the Tortoise Trophy is given to Santorum.

  Mitt Romney: Wait for It …

A fourth bus will soon be joining: Romney's. ABC News has confirmed that after riding around New Hampshire for a few days, Romney will cruise in Iowa from Dec. 28 to 30.

For his better-late-than-never decision, Romney is awarded the, umm, Better Late Than Never Plaque.