My experience in Iowa may hail from the Democratic side of the aisle, but Iowa doesn’t play favorites. Republicans can be surprised on caucus night too. Here are some things I am looking for tonight that will indicate if that’s going to happen:

Watch Dubuque: The county in the northeast corner of the state is heavily Catholic and an area Romney scored well in four years ago. If Rick Santorum isn’t winning here it means the Santorum surge isn’t real or isn’t big enough to matter. The state is 23% Catholic – if Santorum, a pro-life Catholic himself, consolidates the Catholic vote in Dubuque and elsewhere the Iowa surprise could be a Santorum win.

Turnout: The higher the turnout the more like it is that Ron Paul wins the state. Ron Paul pulls in college students as well as Democratic and Independent and voters who do not typically vote in GOP caucuses. If they show up, turnout will be unusually high and the surprise could be the GOP suddenly having to deal with a libertarian uprising in their party.

Settling for Romney: Iowa, after all the ups and downs of the year, could “settle for Romney” with voters worried about defeating Obama they could make their decision on electability like the experience I had with Mondale.  – But even in this scenario (as I learned with Fritz) the surprise will be who took second.

Republicans won’t like me saying this – but one of the great things about democracy is that even in a weak field someone gets to win tonight. That presents a real opportunity for candidates who have been overlooked or discounted on the national stage – Santorum, Paul and maybe even Perry – to establish themselves when it matters most.

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