By this time next week, Republican candidates for president will be holding their final town-hall meetings in Iowa, attending services at megachurches in Sioux City or suburban Des Moines and maybe tucking into one more Maid-Rite loose meat sandwich for a lunch/photo-op.

On Jan. 3, the voting begins with the Iowa caucuses - and, in any normal nominating year, the whole thing could be over within weeks. New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida all hold primaries by the end of January.

This time, however, the fight for Republican delegates may stretch into the spring or early summer, thanks to new rules designed to give more states a real say in the nomination. Some party insiders worry that a prolonged primary will sap the eventual nominee of money heading into the general election against President Obama.

With early state polls razor-close as Republicans struggle to agree on a candidate acceptable to both the party establishment and rank-and-file conservatives, pundits and political reporters have recently revived their quadrennial dream - a brokered convention! - or at least, the late entry of a dark-horse candidate who can ride to the party's rescue and unite its various factions.

There's excited talk that delegates at the convention in steamy Tampa next August, with none of the current candidates able to claim a majority, will put their heads together and come up with a savior named Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie or Mitch Daniels.

"A deadlocked convention, which then became a deliberative convention, could be a good thing because most sentient Republicans, and most conscientious conservatives, suspect we can do better than the current field," conservative thinker Bill Kristol wrote in the latest issue of the Weekly Standard.

The last time Republicans faced such a drawn-out fight was 1976, when neither President Gerald Ford nor challenger Ronald Reagan had support from a majority of delegates heading into the GOP convention in Kansas City. Party leaders negotiated backroom deals that delivered blocs of undecided delegates to Ford, giving him the nomination.

While most analysts think deadlock is unlikely in 2012, the scenario can't be dismissed out of hand. It is structurally possible.

Consider this: At the end of February, only 174 delegates will have been awarded in GOP caucuses and primaries - just 15 percent of the 1,143 a candidate needs to claim the nomination in August.

By contrast, at the same point four years ago, 1,407 convention delegates had been chosen. That was more than enough cushion for John McCain, who knew he had won when Mitt Romney dropped out of the race after the Florida primary.

In 2010, the GOP changed its rules to slow things down, requiring states that award delegates prior to April 1 to do so proportionally. States agreeing to wait until later in the calendar got their reward in clout: more delegates, and the ability to give all their delegates to the winner.

The new rules mean no candidate will be able to claim a majority until at least April 24 - when Pennsylvania and Delaware are among the states holding primaries.

Of course, it's possible that a candidate - say, Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich - could effectively win the nomination early by picking up enough momentum to drive rivals from the race. Even so, the candidate would have to have the wherewithal to hang on to clinch it.

GOP officials brought this uncertainty upon themselves after looking back in envy on the drawn-out fight between Obama and Hillary Clinton - a battle which, instead of draining the winner, energized Democrats with new voters and more robust state-by-state organizations. Republicans wanted the same advantage.

"The rules were adjusted to bring the process more in keeping with 21st-century realities," said Pennsylvania GOP strategist Charlie Gerow. "Most voters want a chance to see their votes count. They don't want to see somebody coronated or anointed."

Some point out that 2008 was different because the presidency was an open seat, whereas this time Obama can stockpile campaign cash without opposition.

Gerow believes the advantages of a longer nominating process still outweigh the risks; as an incumbent, the president was always going to have more money, but he also bears the burden of a terrible economy.

"There's always a concern about conserving resources in a campaign, but the longer process is good," Gerow says. "If it ends early, there would be dead air. Who will fill that dead air? The incumbent.

"Remember, in 2008, Republicans were so angst-ridden to get it over with that we were pushed off the front pages for weeks and months."

Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com or @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/BigTent.