Three days after the Iowa caucus, the Republican field is thinning, with libertarian flag-waver Rand Paul announcing that he is “suspending” his candidacy, and Ray Romano lookalike Rick Santorum doing likewise. Both appear to have made the decision only after a last go-around of possible donors, as they had both programmed a full slate of appearances in South Carolina, the primary following New Hampshire.

Santorum’s departure surprised no one, except perhaps Santorum. The Pennsylvania Catholic conservative Senator with something like a gazillion and a half kids (I could look it up, but I’m pretty sure that’s the number) has never really recovered from narrowly losing the Iowa caucus in 2012 to Mitt Romney — and then finding out a few weeks later that, oops, he’d actually won, and there’d been miscounting.

He would never have got the nomination, but such hooks of fate grab us and won’t let us go, tantalising with the promise that it might have been otherwise. Santorum has been traipsing round Iowa and New Hampshire trying to drum up the sort of grassroots campaign that got him through last time. He conveniently forgot that last time, he was one of half-a-dozen candidates who took the lead, and one of the last, as the Republican right fidgeted and fussed, trying to find someone to fulfil their fantasies.

This time around, his campaign was, by all reports, more than usually pathetic, with repeated stops attended by only two or three people (far worse than no one turning up; then, you can order a coffee, check your phone and leave, like that was all you intended to do). How the hell do you give a speech to three people, cracked enough to think you have a chance? They will stare at you oddly throughout, may have mistaken you for another candidate entirely, believe you will finally investigate this whole UFO-anal probe business. That is how such campaigns end: leaning against the Winnebago in the car park of a Chuck E. Cheese in an Iowa winter sunset, sobbing to yourself until your tears freeze on the windshield.

Santorum, like that other Catholic trouper, our own Tony Abbott, now stands on the border of reality and delusion. Will he now desist, and turn his life elsewhere? Or will he be back in ’20, a driverless car piloting him around the waving fields of corn, running the campaign on his iPhone 10?

Even better, will he turn into a new Harold Stassen, the Republican governor of Minnesota, who came close to getting the party nomination in 1948, and thereafter ran for the nomination nine times, into the 1990s — by which time he was so obscure that the only licence-free photo of him Wikipedia could get was a ’40s colour photo of him in officer uniform, like something out of a Bob Hope movie. One’s suspicion is that Santorum may well do so, if only because his candidacies bring into effect a de facto moratorium on the revival of his eponym. Run, Rick, runny.

Rand Paul’s early departure was more of a surprise. He took 4.5% in Iowa, pitiful, but higher than the bottom floor of losers (Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, John Kasich). There’s a tranche of ideological libertarians in New Hampshire who might help him out. Indeed the state is an ark, for the Free State Project, whereby libertarians sign a pledge to move there once 20,000 people have signed the pledge — a brilliant self-generating device, created by a political science professor of libertarian persuasion from in-state university Dartmouth, the Rabbitohs of the Ivy League.

Amazingly, the petition hit 20,000 yesterday, so we’ll now see if it actually works, and people move to a state whose idea of freedom is no seat belts and no state income tax — but where I had to show photo ID to get a commuter bus into Massachusetts. “Free country, my arse,” I said, or words to that effect. No, those were the exact words. “Better safe than sorry,” said the woman at the counter, who sold about 30 tickets a day, and worried that al-Qaeda (this was in those balmy pre-Islamic State days) would blow up the Tyngsboro park-n-ride.

Where was we? Ah, yes, Rand. He might have made it through NH with another 5-7% or so, with the promise that Super Tuesday might offer some southern states. But to what end, beyond some influence? The success he gained a year or so ago had less to do with an actual message than with some notion of fidelity to an earlier time, before everything went to hell. He tried to keep his libertarian base, and his new supporters — and lost large numbers of both.

The libertarians departed when he moved to a semi-hawkish position on foreign wars, defence of Israel, etc, all for the donors. The general Republican right base departed when they realised he was a libertarian and didn’t want to enforce American will everywhere, looked kindly on drug legalisation, emptying the prisons, etc. By then, they had Trump’s simpler message — “make America great again!” — to go to. Paul was always another son-of-a-father politician, walking in a shadow. All Ron Paul wanted to do was raise hell, and pose a radical alternative. All Ted Cruz wants to do is get elected president, and he will do “what it takes”. Rand Paul never did enough of that to do either.

That leaves Jeb Bush still in because, well, he has to be, really, with that name. He has to at least turn up to New Hampshire, and maybe even Super Tuesday, for the sake of family honour. Is it that? Is he desperate for this disaster to be over — the horror stretch by which a competent governor of Florida, the man-who-coulda-been, compared to the family joke who became Prez, has in turn become the family joke? Is he in the family bubble, being told it will all turn for him? Or is there some belief that the primaries will be hopelessly split, and that the party establishment will turn once again, to a safe pair of hands, and we will have the Clinton-Bush dynastic contest we have always dreaded?

Who knows? Common sense says it’s over for all but Trump, Cruz and Rubio, but still the others slog on. Fiorina, Christie are now simply campaigning for the VP slot, and a few per cent either way in a few places could make all the difference to that. They won’t win a primary or get out of the 5% bracket. But the final contender John Kasich might. He’s running third in NH, and the moderate Republican vote, significant there (it’s the one New England state that occasionally goes red these days) might pile in behind him. And he’s an ex-governor of Ohio. He would be a strong contender. Cruz would consider him for a VP slot. Trump may also, but he will offer it to his daughter first. And on we go.