The Iowa caucuses are in a few days. And Donald Trump, the larger-than-life real estate reality TV star, is - still - the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Not only has Trump not disappeared or imploded, as everyone everywhere predicted he would, he appears to be getting stronger in early-state and national polling as actual voting draws closer.
At this point, Trump's path to winning the Republican nomination quickly is far easier than the one former secretary of state Hillary Clinton must travel to capture the Democratic nomination. That doesn't mean that Trump is a sure thing yet, but he has, without question, the best chance of any Republican running to claim the party's top prize.
Below are my latest rankings of the six men who have a realistic-to-semi-realistic chance of winning the GOP nomination. If your preferred candidate's name isn't on the list, it's because they, well, aren't going to win.
1. Donald Trump. He has had a very good past few weeks. He continues to hone his pitch on the stump and clearly has thrown rival Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas, off by raising doubts about his eligibility to run. Say what you will about her decidedly unusual speech endorsing Trump, but former Alaska governor Sarah Palin remains a potent force (and surrogate) among social conservative and tea party types. Trump has pulled back into a tie with Cruz in Iowa - or even into the lead, if you believe a new Fox News Channel poll - and has extended his edge over the rest of the field in New Hampshire. He leads in virtually every state that follows those two. If he wins Iowa and New Hampshire, look out: He will almost certainly be the Republican standard-bearer.
2. Ted Cruz. Cruz has built his reputation on his unwillingness to play nice with the old bulls of the Republican Party. That trait catapulted him to where he is in this race but of late has boomeranged against him. First, Sen. John McCain, Ariz., exacted his revenge on Cruz by adding fuel to the fire over whether the Canadian-born Cruz is eligible to be president. Then, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad urged Hawkeye State voters to back anyone but Cruz in the caucuses. Then former Senate majority leader Bob Dole, Kan., who really, really doesn't like Cruz, told the New York Times that nominating the senator from Texas would have catastrophic consequences for the GOP. None of these hits are death blows for Cruz, but they each serve as a distraction at a time when he cannot afford to take his eye off the ball.
3. Marco Rubio. The senator from Florida has been the "potential" candidate for the entirety of this race. He's the best debater in the field. He's young (44). He's Hispanic. He looks the part. And yet, there's no early state where Rubio appears to be in position to win or even place. He is third in Iowa, behind Cruz and Trump. He is third behind Trump and John Kasich in New Hampshire. He is a distant third behind Trump and Cruz in South Carolina. Rubio's path to the nomination has to be third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire and then a win or a very close second in South Carolina - a strategy dubbed "3-2-1." After all, to be the nominee, you actually have to win states. (See Giuliani, Rudy.)
4. Jeb Bush. There's a big drop-off between the top three spots and the next three spots on this list. Bush is the best of the rest because he remains the best-positioned candidate of the second-tier choices to emerge in the lengthy primary fight. Bush's Right to Rise super PAC is laying down money for TV ad buys in states that vote in primaries in March - something that the people ranked below him on this list simply can't do. That said, his polling in Iowa and New Hampshire looks anemic; he's in fifth place in both states, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. The former Florida governor is a more respectable fourth - and in double digits! - in South Carolina, but if he can't overperform expectations in one of the first two states, the pressure for him to end his campaign to help consolidate support behind an establishment pick (probably Rubio) will be intense.
5. John Kasich. Polling is all over the place in New Hampshire, but if you look at the broad stretch of data out there, it seems likely that the Ohio governor is running slightly ahead of the various Trump alternatives in the state. Barring some sort of massive collapse in Iowa, Trump seems well positioned to cruise in the Granite State, so the real battle will be for second place. If Kasich can get there, it will allow him to stay in the race through Nevada and South Carolina - and probably all the way through the March 1 "SEC primary," when a handful of Southern states will vote. The problem for Kasich is I just don't see a lot of obvious opportunities beyond New Hampshire for him to pull off a shock-the-world-type win necessary for him to become a true contender.
6. Chris Christie. The momentum that the New Jersey governor appeared to have a month ago in New Hampshire seems to have dissipated, if not disappeared entirely. In five out of the past six polls conducted in the state, Christie hasn't broken double digits. If he can't find a way to restart his campaign in the state, Christie has no chance of surviving beyond Feb. 9, when New Hampshire votes. I keep Christie on the list because his persona and the attention he has paid to the state could lead to another mini-surge in the days leading up to the first-in-the-nation primary.
• 01/25/16: Trump is the favorite to be the Republican nominee. Period
• 01/22/16: Who had the worst week in Washington? Hillary Clinton
• 01/18/16: Feeling bad for Jeb Bush
• 01/15/16: Winners and losers from the sixth Republican presidential debate
• 01/12/16: Here's exactly how Bernie Sanders can beat Hillary Clinton
• 01/11/16:The fantasy scenario that could become reality for Hillary
• 12/30/15: The five big lessons from a weirdly watchable year of politics
• 12/21/15: Winners and losers in the third Democratic presidential debate
• 12/16/15: Winners and losers from the 5th Republican presidential debate
• 12/16/15: Cruz, not Trump, looking like GOP favorite for 2016
• 12/04/15: Ted Cruz is the sleeping giant in the Republican race
• 11/24/15:Trump is leading an increasingly fact-free 2016 campaign
• 11/23/15: A ranking of GOP presidential candidates who can still make a case --- and the nominee
• 11/16/15: The remarkably unappealing anger of Donald Trump
• 11/11/15: Winners and losers from the fourth Republican debate
• 11/02/15: Jeb Bush says he still doesn't get why his terrible debate performance matters so much
• 10/29/15: Winners and losers from the third Republican presidential debate
• 10/22/15: Paul Ryan might be saving his party. But at what cost?
• 10/20/15: Six things we know Joe Biden is thinking
• 10/19/15: Who had the worst week in Washington? Lincoln Chafee
• 10/14/15: Winners and losers from the first Dem presidential debate