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The much-talked-about Iowa caucus are looming - really now - just - we're really talking pretty soon. And on the Republican side, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are in a heated battle for first place. But some of the candidates who don't have a great shot at winning Iowa are still fighting hard in that state. NPR's Susan Davis went there to find out why.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Two sharp-elbowed candidates are trying to knock each other out of contention, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Here's a taste of the Iowa airwaves this week, courtesy of a super PAC supporting Bush.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Over the last three years, Rubio has missed important national security hearings and missed more total votes than any other senator. Politics first, that's the Rubio away.
DAVIS: And a super PAC for Rubio is pushing right back.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Desperate candidates say desperate things. And Jeb Bush is desperate. His attacks on Marco Rubio have been dismissed and debunked by our own Senator Grassley. The fact, Rubio's attended more classified national security briefings this year than any other candidate.
DAVIS: So why are two Republicans who are nearly certain to lose Iowa battling it out here? One man who has an answer is Ken Anderson. He's retired and a lifelong Republican and still undecided. Anderson was at a Marco Rubio town hall in Marshalltown yesterday. It makes sense to him why Bush and Rubio are going at it even though they're both running way behind.
KEN ANDERSON: If you come strong through Iowa in the top three or four, I think you really do have some momentum going on.
DAVIS: That's it. A strong third-place showing for a candidate like Bush or Rubio could change the momentum going into New Hampshire, another critical early state with a primary just one week after Iowa. Even locked-in Trump supporters like Larry Warnell say a third-place victory could be a good thing in Iowa.
LARRY WARNELL: It could be because in the last couple elections, number ones have never finished, I don't think.
DAVIS: Warnell's right. The last Republican candidate to win the Iowa caucuses and the nomination was George W. Bush in 2000. And while candidates like Trump and Cruz have established themselves as outsiders in this race, the remaining candidates are still jockeying for support for more traditional Republican voters in Iowa, like Justin Chappell. He's a small business owner, and he describes himself as a moderate. Chappell's still deciding between Bush, Rubio, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or Ohio Governor John Kasich.
JUSTIN CHAPPELL: It'll be interesting to see of all of the so-called moderates, you know, which one gets the most votes.
DAVIS: Ann Selzer is the most respected pollster in Iowa.
ANN SELZER: The most important thing a candidate can do is when. And Iowa's the first place that you can win something.
DAVIS: If Cruz and Trump take first and second place, Selzer says the third-place finisher can still be meaningful if the rest of the pack is far behind.
SELZER: Who can be a substantial third-place? Because if you're just one point ahead of the next person or the next person and the next person, then nobody gets that third ticket. There is no third ticket. It's a virtual tie.
DAVIS: And while no candidate would claim to be running for third place, it may explain why candidates like Bush and Rubio have spent millions on the airwaves and why they plan to be back in Iowa next week. Susan Davis, NPR News, Des Moines.
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