On January 3, the first GOP primary will happen in Iowa. Well, in Iowa it is a caucus.
What's the difference between caucus and primary? Caucus are public. You debate, you publicly state who you vote vote for. Primaries are secret ballot, just like the general election.
As a side note, there are open, closed, and partial open both caucus and primary. Closed is the standard - it means only members of the party can vote on who their party's candidate will be. Open means anyone can vote - even democrats. Partial opens are rare - Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, Texas, are the only states that do them. Texas is even worse - they do both a caucus and a primary.
Massachusetts and New Hampshire lets anyone that is a member of the party OR an independent vote in the primary. Registered democrats can't vote in the GOP primary and vice-versa.
Ohio lets you vote in any primary - but demands you officially switch your party registration to do so - and you can only vote in one. It lets you do so on the spot.
Texas is incredibly complicated - suffice it to say that their primary lets some independents vote, but not their caucus.
Back to Iowa. At this point there are three major candidates, plus a bunch of also-rans. Mitt Romney, Mr. Steady, who's been there from the start, but people keep looking for anyone better. Then there is Newt Gingrich, Mr. Not Romney. A Washington Insider with a lot of baggage (corruption, cheating, etc). Finally there is Ron Paul. Mr Libertarian. The fact that he is doing so well is strange. Not because he is strange - he isn't. Instead it is strange because he clearly is not a Republican. He is a Libertarian. The only reason he does well at all in the GOP is because the GOP has done a PR campaign to claim they are libertarian. This blatant lie has attracted some libertarians into their fold, who now wonder why no one else in the GOP votes for the only Libertarian candidate running in the GOP.
The also rans are Huntsman, Cain. Bachmann, Perry, and Santorum. (not counting the unknowns - Johnson, Karger and Roemer) None of these can seriously beat Obama.
There are now four legs of the GOP, the libertarians, the Tea Party, the Religious conservatives, and the fiscal conservatives.
The libertarians vote Ron Paul - and if he loses the primary, they won't vote in the general election. The Tea Party is leaning towards Newt Gingrich - but may select one of the also-rans - Bachmann is a possibility. The religious Conservatives like Santorum, Bachmann and Perry, but konw these three can't win against Obama. They wish they could vote for Romney or Gingrich, but Romney is a Mormon and Gingrich cheated on his cancer-ridden dying wife. The fiscal conservatives would have liked Cain, but he is out. Without him they may like Gingrich, but could decided that Romney has a better chance to win. They tend to be more practical than most other GOP believers.
Which explains why no one has emerged as a clear winner. On paper, Gingrich has a slight advantage, getting some Tea party and some fiscal support. But Romney has a better shot of winning, which gets those Republicans that care more about defeating Obama than about principles.
My prediction is, in order: Gingrich, Romeny, Paul as the leaders, but no one having more than 33% of the vote. Honestly, Run Paul may surprise everyone - at least he has strong believers supporting him.