Republican Mitt Romney is sensing an opening to win next Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses, and he is campaigning with increasing confidence – and a new crush of advertising – to bolster his closing argument: that he is the most electable candidate to challenge US President Barack Obama in November.
A win in the first voting on the national road to the Republican nomination would help him in the next contest on January 10, in New Hampshire, where the former Massachusetts governor’s standing is strong.
“I just have to put my head down and battle as best I can,” Mr Romney said.
Mr Romney has not announced where he will be on caucus night, leaving open the possibility that he may stay in Iowa if victory is at hand.
Support for former House of Representatives speaker – and former leader in the polls – Newt Gingrich is sliding after an onslaught of advertisements by a political action committee run by Mr Romney’s allies.
And while Mr Romney is largely shying away from criticising his rivals, he jabbed at Texas Representative Ron Paul, who has emerged as Mr Romney’s chief rival in Iowa despite some concerns over his isolationist views on foreign policy.
“One of the people running for president thinks it’s OK for Iran to have a nuclear weapon,” Mr Romney said. “I don’t.”
It is a far more aggressive strategy than the one Mr Romney has employed all year.
He poured $10m (€7.72m) into the state in 2008, only to lose it in a defeat that crippled his campaign.
He could not allay concerns about his Mormon faith or his reversals on some social issues in a state where evangelical Republicans and other social conservatives dominate.
Mr Romney approached Iowa more cautiously this time. Until recently, his Iowa aides worked out of an attic on a slim budget. He spent less than $200,000 on the state before the campaign started buying TV ads in December.
Ron Paul’s surge represents the latest threat, and in some respects, the unlikeliest, coming from a man whose views on abortion, the war in Iraq, Iran and other issues are at odds with those of most Republicans.
At the same time, Mr Paul’s anti-government appeal appears to tap into the desire of a frustrated electorate for profound change in an era of high unemployment and an economy that has only slowly recovered from the recession.
Social conservatives remain splintered among a handful of candidates that include Texas Governor Rick Perry, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
Ms Bachmann’s struggling presidential campaign was dealt another setback, when one of her Iowa co-chairmen, state Senator Kent Sorenson, gave his endorsement to Mr Paul at a Des Moines rally.
Mr Sorenson said he resigned from Ms Bachmann’s campaign to join the most conservative of the top-tier candidates.
A new CNN/Time poll in Iowa showed Mr Romney leading with 25% support. Mr Paul had 22% and Mr Santorum drew 16%, while Mr Gingrich had fallen to 14%.