The Candidate Death Watch

For every candidate who moves one step closer to the presidency tonight, there will be several whose lust for the White House will be squelched. Starting today, we’ll keep track of whose candidacy is most likely to bite the dust. Think of it as a Bizarro Power Rankings. This is the pre-caucus edition; we’ll have another one up after the dust settles tomorrow.

Dead on arrival

Chris Dodd–Dodd has had more success in the Capitol than on the trail in the last few months. A strong third or fourth at the caucus is the only thing that could revive his campaign, but even those chances are low. Joe Biden has soaked up all of Dodd’s potential support. Look for a concession speech coming to a CNN near you.

Fred Thompson–Thompson’s advisers say he’ll drop out (which Thompson denies). Thompson has never appeared to want in. Unless he finishes in second, this is a done deal. The biggest question surrounding his campaign is whether his concession speech will just be a live shot of him taking a nap .

The walking dead

Bill Richardson–Richardson has made a play in New Hampshire, so he’ll probably last until at least Jan. 8. But there isn’t a plausible scenario where he gets the boost he needs. Richardson has more money than the other second-tier candidates, so third-place finishes are adequate, not momentum-changers. For Richardson, there’s no way forward without a stunning first- or second-place finish tonight.

On life support

Joe Biden–Biden has made 83 percent of his stops in Iowa. If he’s going to get a boost anywhere, it’s in the Hawkeye State. But he’ll need to place third to stave off the vultures. And even then, he may enter New Hampshire as a member of the walking dead.

John Edwards–Edwards has further to fall than Biden, and in some ways is even more likely to do so. Anything but first would cripple his chances at a national nomination, because it would create the Obama-Clinton matchup the press has been waiting for. With that said, we won’t see a concession if he doesn’t win.

Mitt Romney–Romney isn’t giving a concession speech, either. But he is screwed if he doesn’t finish in first. No Iowa means no positive buzz in New Hampshire; no momentum in New Hampshire means no way to overcome devastating editorials in the New Hampshire Union Leader ; no New Hampshire means no Michigan; no Michigan means no South Carolina; no South Carolina means no Florida; no Florida means no competition against Rudy Giuliani on Feb. 5. Yeah, this is about as must-win as it gets.

Mike Huckabee–One win in Iowa can shove him way down on this list. No concession speech tonight, but things get awfully dicey for him without a win in Iowa. Evangelicals will turn out for him in all of the primaries, but he needs more than just his built-in base.

The enigmas

Dennis Kucinich–Kucinich will last until at least California, and probably much further than that. He didn’t drop out of the 2004 race until July , so he’s in this for the long haul, whatever that means in this case.

Mike Gravel–I kid, I kid. But seriously, the beauty of being off the radar in every state means that no loss is a crushing blow.

Duncan Hunter–What’s the straw that breaks this camel’s back? He’ll most likely be excluded from the debates in New Hampshire, which means other debates can exclude him. He wasted his chance to distinguish himself after his doppelganger, Tom Tancredo, dropped out.

Not going anywhere

Hillary Clinton–Yeah, right.

Barack Obama–He’s fired up . He’s not ready to go.

John McCain–McCain has little to lose and everything to gain tonight. His people have to be giddy about how the Huckaboom/bust political economy has played out. Plus, he was already on the verge of death this summer. Lazarus doesn’t go down without a fight.

Rudy Giuliani–Ironically, we already know there’s no chance Rudy Giuliani drops out after tonight.

Ron Paul–The man is going to be a third-party candidate . Unless he’s not . Unless he is . Who the hell knows, anymore? Either way, he’s not leaving any time soon.