After months of build-up, there remains no clear favorite among Republican voters in Iowa.
Polls in recent days have pointed to a three-way toss-up in Tuesday’s presidential caucus between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator.
In the run-up to the actual caucuses, scheduled to start at 8 pm ET, neither the candidates themselves nor prognosticators from Iowa GOP Gov. Terry Branstad on down were willing to tout a likely winner.
“I think anybody can come in first,” Newt Gingrich, former House Speaker and former Iowa frontrunner, said on CBS.
Indecision In Iowa
Party officials expect that total turnout will surpass the record of 119,000 GOP caucusgoers set four years ago.
Iowa Republican voters will gather for two-hour sessions in the living rooms of private homes, school auditoriums and libraries, where they will write the name of their favorite on blank pieces of paper. While only a small percentage of Iowans will attend the caucuses, the state vote holds outsize importance in the nominating process because it is the first test of the candidates’ popularity and ability to organize.
Polls indicate that more than a third of those who will be attending caucuses throughout the state have not yet made up their minds. Candidates fanned throughout the state all day, hoping to persuade stragglers.
Although Romney began the week proclaiming, “We’re going to win this thing,” he was backpedaling on Tuesday. “It’s hard to predict exactly what’s going to happen. I think I’ll be among the top group,” he told MSNBC.
Emotions Running High
The general tone of the campaign has become more negative in recent days. Fresh accusations and complaints were lodged as late as Tuesday.
Gingrich said that Romney was a liar for claiming he wasn’t responsible for negative television ads funded by a super PAC supporting the former governor.
“This is a man whose staff created the PAC, and his millionaire friends fund the PAC,” Gingrich said. “But he pretends he has nothing to do with the PAC. It’s baloney. He’s not telling the American public the truth.”
Paul received an endorsement from a surprising quarter on Tuesday -– from Santorum’s nephew, John Garver, a 19-year-old student at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.
“If you want another big-government politician who supports the status quo to run our country, you should vote for my uncle, Rick Santorum,” Garver wrote in the Daily Caller.
A Des Moines Register poll released Saturday found 41 percent of likely caucusgoers could be persuaded to change their minds, while another 7 percent had no first-choice candidate; 1 percent said they were not sure which candidate to support.
Romney held a rally in the capital, Des Moines, while Santorum and Paul joined other candidates at a Rock the Caucus event for local high school students. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was preparing a final push, meeting early Tuesday with his volunteers and then holding two town hall-style meetings.
Romney also took the opportunity during the day to make a final dig aimed not at his Republican rivals, but at the president. “This has been a failed presidency,” he told voters in a Des Moines ballroom. “I will go to work to get Americans back to work.”
At the Rock the Caucus event in West Des Moines, Santorum appealed to students to think beyond their next job and toward long-term problems, such as the “exploding federal debt” that is “crushing the economy now and will crush your pocketbooks in the future.”
“We’re at a critical path. Who is the candidate who has a vision for America?” said Santorum, who has gained ground among conservative Christians who like his anti-abortion record and see Romney as too centrist.
Paul told the crowd that younger Americans were showing their support for him because he sticks to his principles.
“I endorse and defend the Constitution continually in Washington, and that appeals to young people,” he said, also taking the opportunity to burnish his anti-war stance that has found fertile ground in Iowa.
In the Des Moines Register poll, Paul was trailing Romney by just 2 percentage points. But the poll indicated that Santorum’s support was surpassing Paul’s by the end of last week.
Digging In Or Giving Up?
Romney may be able to withstand these challenges because many Iowa Republicans see him as the candidate most likely to defeat Obama.
At a Monday night rally in Davenport, voter Nancy Rudnick told NPR that she thought Romney “has the ability to turn this country around and to beat Obama.” Asked which of the two was most important, she answered: “Beating Obama.”
Like Gingrich, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann also once led in Iowa. She almost sounded as though she were conceding defeat ahead of the actual voting.
At Tuesday’s Rock the Caucus gathering, she said the key to her audience’s future was to “open up the opportunities in the tax code, change our climate for business and open up the economy.”
Perry, by contrast, seemed set for the long haul as he spoke to supporters Tuesday morning. The Texas governor compared the campaign to his 16-year courtship of his wife, Anita, saying that if it took that long to persuade her to marry him, then he’s ready to spend months trying to “talk Americans into our vision.”
Romney had largely stayed away from Iowa, thinking his chances weren’t good, but made an 11th-hour push once it became clear that he had a chance of winning, campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told NPR.
“I think we’re surprised to find ourselves in the hunt here in Iowa,” he said. “Back in the spring we didn’t think that we’d do that well in Iowa, but based on what we’ve been seeing and hearing over the past several weeks, we decided to invest more time by the candidate here.”
Looking Beyond Iowa
Fehrnstrom downplayed the importance of a single test that comes so early in the primary season, saying that the focus should remain on defeating Obama.
Iowa will send just a few dozen delegates out of the nearly 1,150 that will be needed by any candidate to wrap up the GOP nomination at the party’s national convention this August in Tampa, Fla.
“There’s a sense that even if Ron Paul or Rick Santorum takes first place in Iowa … in the long term that’s not necessarily a terrible thing for the Romney campaign,” he said.
“I think whether we win or achieve something less in Iowa, we’ve built an organization that can go the long distance to Tampa,” Fehrnstrom said.
After Tuesday’s vote, Romney, Gingrich and Santorum planned to leave for New Hampshire. Romney holds a commanding lead in polls there and will be in a strong position to win the state’s Jan. 10 primary even if he doesn’t pull out a victory in Iowa. Paul plans to join his rivals in New Hampshire later in the week.
Perry and Bachmann don’t plan to compete in New Hampshire, instead heading straight from Iowa to the first-in-the-South primary, set for Jan. 21 in South Carolina. Romney also plans to visit South Carolina this week.
NPR’s Ari Shapiro, David Schaper, Don Gonyea and Ted Robbins reported from Iowa for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.