(CNN) - Iowa's Republican governor, Terry Branstad, predicted Rick Santorum would fall in the top three in his state's lead-off caucuses Tuesday.
Appearing Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union," Branstad said he also expects Mitt Romney and Ron Paul to finish in the top tier, a forecast that mirrors recent polling in the Hawkeye State.
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"Iowa caucuses have always winnowed the field to about three candidates, so it's all about beating expectations here," he told CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley. "I predicted all along that Santorum would be better than people expect."
A Des Moines Register Poll released Saturday, conducted between Tuesday and Friday, showed Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, in third place behind former Massachusetts Gov. Romney and Rep. Paul of Texas. But when the results from Thursday and Friday were considered independently, Santorum rose to second place, behind Romney and ahead of Paul.
Santorum has invested his time on the ground in the state and was the first candidate this cycle to visit each of the state's 99 counties.
Discussing Paul, who is making his third bid for the White House, Branstad said his platform is responsible for his strong polling in the state.
"Ron Paul, to his credit, has put a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of focus in, and his focus on that he's voted against all these deficits. He's been against all this manipulation of the currency, I think has resonated with Iowa voters, and that's the number one issue," he said.
But he said that some caucus attendees "also have some concerns about his position on foreign policy and as a result, as they sort it out, I think he's going to get a significant showing here but even if he wins Iowa, I think it's really going to be a question of who is in the top three."
Though he included neither Texas Gov. Rick Perry nor former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in his top three, Branstad says they "could do better than some expect."
Both have lost ground in the state recently while Gingrich has faced a barrage of attacks ads.
When asked who else would find success in the state, he served up some criticism for one candidate who did not campaign in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
"Well I can tell you who's not going to be, and that is Jon Huntsman. He messed up big time, he skipped Iowa," Branstad said. "And the result is he's an asterisk and he's never going to get beyond that."
Although Branstad, the state's five-term governor, frequently speaks publicly about the race, he has not endorsed a candidate.
Neither has high profile Iowa Rep. Steve King. But during an appearance on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday, King left the door open to a possible endorsement.
"If that instant comes that I'm convinced that one will do a significant better job than another, I won't hesitate, I'll step in," King said. "But it has to be a conviction on my part. I don't think I'd be doing justice to this privilege that I have if it were not a conviction."
But whoever wins in Iowa, Branstad said he will be focused on defeating President Barack Obama, who gained traction in the 2008 Democratic field in part through an Iowa caucus victory.
"I'll tell you my goal as governor: unite the Republican Party, attract the independents, and defeat Obama," Branstad said. "We launched him, we want to sink him."
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