With the first votes of the 2012 race for the White House looming tomorrow, Mitt Romney is contending for victory in a state that eluded him four years ago, while Rick Santorum — a hero among social conservatives — surges and libertarian-leaning Ron Paul slides.
With many factors at play, the dynamics can shift rapidly. Yet, two things were clear on the final weekend before the caucuses: the year-long effort to establish a consensus challenger to Romney had so far come up short, and Romney’s carefully laid plan to survive Iowa may succeed because conservative voters have failed to unite behind one candidate.
Underscoring the unpredictability of the race, a poll by the Des Moines Register showed that a remarkable 41% of caucus-goers say they were undecided or still might change their minds.
Romney had 24% support among likely voters while Paul had 22%, meaning they were statistically even at the front of the pack. Santorum was third with 15%, followed by Newt Gingrich, with 12%, and Rick Perry with 11%. Michele Bachmann, a one-time Iowa favourite, brought up the rear with 7%.
However, in a sign of how quickly things can change, the last two days of the poll — taken Tuesday through Friday — found Santorum with momentum and Paul losing his. Heading into the weekend, Romney held a narrow lead, but Santorum was right behind him with 21% while Paul had fallen to 18%.
Yesterday, the candidates were making their closing arguments, both in appearances across Iowa as well as on national TV, while volunteers and staffers canvassed the state.
Paul, who was at home in Texas for the weekend, was making the rounds of Sunday talk shows, while Santorum, Perry and Bachmann were doing the same from Iowa.
Interviewed on CNN, Paul discounted the impact of Santorum’s surge on his own campaign: “It’s the people who got frustrated with the other ones and they’re just shifting their views. That’s one thing you can’t say about my supporters. They don’t shift their views.”
Romney was working to maximise the edge he holds in critical areas rather than risk underperforming in places where more ardent conservatives are wary of his Mormon faith and shifting positions on social issues.
In Le Mars on Sunday, he drew a crowd of 300, including Alan Lucken, who shouted to the candidate: “You’re going to win.”
“I’m planning on it,” Romney said, later telling a reporter: “I sure hope to. I’ll tell you that.”
In another show of confidence, Romney promised to return if he is the nominee: “I’m going to be back in Iowa; we’re going to fight, we’re going to win Iowa in the general election.”
Santorum, meanwhile, looked to capitalise on his recent surge by focusing on southern portions of rural Iowa, where the former Pennsylvania senator has made a point of visiting more often than his rivals.
He claimed momentum on Saturday — and acknowledged his opponents had more money — as he travelled with his daughter Liz, who quit college to campaign for her father.
“We believe that ultimately, money doesn’t matter in Iowa,” Santorum said in Indianola. “You can’t buy Iowa. You’ve got to go out and work for Iowa votes.”
Perry’s advisers see Santorum within reach and have begun attacking him the former senator for having supported spending on home-state pet projects, an unpopular position.
“I think the world of Rick Santorum. He’s got a great family. But we’ve got some real difference when it comes to fiscal issues,” Perry told supporters in Boone. “Those differences couldn’t be clearer when it comes to important issues in this election like spending.”
Santorum, in turn, charged Perry with hypocrisy: “He had a paid lobbyist in Washington looking for earmarks.”