After months of campaigning and seemingly endless debates, we’re edging closer to having actual, tangible results from all the GOP candidates’ efforts. Next month features four contests: the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10, the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21 and the Florida preference primary on Jan. 31. 

What’s striking about this year’s calendar is that with the exception of a few caucuses, there is a month gap between the Florida vote and the next significant primaries in Arizona and Michigan. A strong start is essential for winning the nomination, but staying in contention is more important than having a small delegate lead at the end of January. With that in mind, here are four key spots that will help decide who emerges from January in the best shape. 

Iowa: Polk County In 2008, Mike Huckabee earned close to 3,000 of his 10,000-vote victory margin from Polk County. While he ran strong in the less densely populated counties in the southern part of the state, he actually didn’t run as strongly as expected in western Iowa, which was presumed to be his base in the state. Mitt Romney won the eastern part of the state, counties on the Missouri River, and exurban Republican hotbed Dallas County. But it was an urban and suburban electorate in large towns and small cities in the middle of the state -- over 20 percent of all the 2008 Iowa caucus goers were from Polk County -- that gave Huckabee the support needed to win.

This cycle, there is no candidate like Huckabee that unifies the Christian conservative vote. If that voting stream is split, then the higher populated areas in the state will decide who wins. Also, considering the increased interest in this nomination process compared to 2008, there could be a major increase in caucus participation, and this would likely further increase the importance of the more developed areas in the state.

New Hampshire: Nashua This city of approximately 85,000 is home to one in every 15 New Hampshire residents. It’s a swing city in general elections, and is the home of ex-Sen. Judd Gregg (R), who is backing Romney, and current Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R). In 2008, Romney was able to win Nashua, but by only a small margin, which was not sufficient to offset Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) support in more northern parts of the state. 

Romney must run stronger in Nashua this time around to meet expectations. The surrounding towns on or near the Massachusetts state line are his base. Fortunately for him, they are the most Republican and largest towns in New Hampshire, and if he runs strongly in them, he’ll win the primary. Rivals looking for an upset need to focus on repeating McCain’s strategy of tying these locations and winning in the rest of the state.

South Carolina: Richland County The South Carolina Republican electorate is the definition of conservative, but there is a consistent internal split between the Lowcountry, with a large military and retiree population, and the Upcountry, with a religious accent to its conservatism. 

This split is magnified in primaries. In 2008, McCain was the candidate of the Lowcountry and Huckabee was the candidate of the Upcountry. McCain won his narrow victory in the Columbia area, which is in the center of the state and relatively balanced between the two regions. Overall, McCain won Richland County, which contains the majority of the Columbia metro area, by nearly 5,000 votes. This accounted for one-third of his victory margin in the state.

Florida: The I-4 Corridor In 2008, propelled by the endorsement of then-Gov. Charlie Crist, McCain was able to win what turned out to be the decisive contest in the battle for the GOP nomination. The Arizona Republican very narrowly beat Romney in the Orlando area while he won the Tampa area (Crist’s base) by a solid 7-8 point margin. This was the key to offsetting Romney’s strong performance in the Jacksonville and southwest Florida areas. We’ll know in a few short weeks whether one of the 2012 candidates can replicate McCain’s path to the nod. 

Chris Palko works as an assistant media analyst at Smart Media Group, a Republican political media buying agency in Alexandria, Va. He is a graduate of American University and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

A version of this post was also published on Smart Media Group’s blog, Smart Blog.