By MIKE GLOVER
DES MOINES, Iowa - They are barely blips in presidential polls and their campaign cash is scarce. Some are running on empty, fueled mainly by the exposure that comes with the blizzard of televised debates in this election cycle and interviews they eagerly grant to skeptical reporters.
Yet the second-tier candidates for the Republican presidential nomination soldier on. They argue that the race is far from over and that anything can happen with polls showing a wide-open race in Iowa five weeks before the Jan. 3 caucuses.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum is typical when he resists the conventional wisdom that only candidates with a lot of cash and a big campaign can win.
"I feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing and I feel like I'm making a difference in the race," said Santorum, who barely registers in state surveys despite having campaigned in Iowa for more than a year. "I absolutely believe our time will come and we'll have the opportunity to have the spotlight turned on us."
Santorum, who represented Pennsylvania in Congress for 16 years, frankly acknowledges the possibility of a different outcome.
"If it doesn't, you know, it doesn't," he said.
Even more than energy and determination, also-ran candidates rely on particular issues, free media and prospects for the future to drive them to keep their small-scale operations going.
With polls and money putting candidates like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain atop the field of Republican rivals, there's a crop of others likely to remain in the race until voters have their say. One force in that dynamic is the fluidity of this year's contest.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman, was among the many candidates who surged when they got into the race but then plummeted in the polls. She's gotten feistier as her fortunes have sagged.
"I guarantee you, with everything within my being, I have the backbone," Bachmann said. "I'll put my backbone up against any other candidate in the race."
That includes Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is adamant that he's not giving up, even as his campaign flails and his once-flush bank account suffers following a series of debate missteps that has some of his fundraisers questioning his viability. He, like Bachmann, Santorum and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, are barely blips in many surveys.
Although they don't seem to be catching fire, it turns out that the nomination itself is not the only prize to be had by seeking a presidential nomination.
Rep. Ron Paul's hard-core libertarian views energize a small but loyal base. Santorum uses his platform to hammer his hard-core anti-abortion stance. Bachmann just released a book whose sales could see a boost in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses.
And history shows that future leadership posts - and presidential runs - can be in the offing.
Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa waged a long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination in 1992, getting forced out after the early primaries. He endorsed candidate Bill Clinton, kept his seat in the Senate and became an influential voice in the Clinton White House.
Romney lost his first presidential bid in 2008 but used that experience to build a network of political and financial supporters serving him well in this election cycle.
There are other reasons too to press ahead when chances of victory seem slim, not the least of which is how quickly politics can change.
Just ask Gingrich. The former House speaker was a footnote in the race this summer after his campaign imploded. Now, as Iowa voters give him a second look, he's enjoying a rise in state and national polls. And he reports that money and manpower are now flowing his way.
It's not unusual for second-tier candidates to stick around long after they have fallen out of favor with voters and donors alike. The structure of the race in Iowa and other early voting states like New Hampshire and South Carolina is designed to make it possible for them to keep going because the states are relatively cheap places to campaign and they value hand-to-hand campaigning over pricy TV ads.
"In Iowa, you can sleep on people's couches and hang on for a long time with very little money," Republican strategist Rich Galen said. "You can live off the land in Iowa. You can't do that in Florida."
The nature of the politics of the first three states to vote also encourages longshot candidates because the contests are dominated in both parties by hard-core activists more interested in political purity than poll numbers.
Steve Scheffler, who heads the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, notes that very few people in Iowa have made firm decisions on whom to support, meaning the race could be anyone's to win.
"There's enough fluidness in the race and enough people out there who are not entrenched in stone," Scheffler said. "The verdict is still out there."
Thus, so too are the second-tier candidates.