Iowa Republicans prepared to cast the first votes of the 2012 presidential contest tonight, marking their choice for a candidate to challenge President Barack Obama in November.
Polls show the race in Iowa has turned into a three-man contest among front-runner Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, who is quickly gaining ground with voters in the Midwestern state.
“We’re going to win this thing,” Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, told a rally yesterday on the last full day of campaigning.
But that was not certain. He’s virtually tied in the polls with Texas representative Paul, a small-government libertarian who has found fertile ground in Iowa for his states’ rights, anti-war message.
Former Pennsylvania senator Santorum is gaining ground on both men, playing heavily on his conservative Christian, anti-abortion record with like-minded Republican voters in the heartland state.
Romney may withstand the challenges because Republicans see him as the candidate most likely to defeat Obama. The president is vulnerable because of the struggling American economy and continuing high unemployment as the country has been slow to rebound from the Great Recession of 2007-2009.
Republican voters in Iowa will gather at 8pm local time (1am Irish time) for sessions that last two hours. In the living rooms of private homes, school auditoriums and libraries, they will hear from the candidates’ local representatives for a final sales pitch before they write down the name of their favourite on blank pieces of paper handed out to each caucus-goer.
While just a small percentage of Iowans will attend the caucuses – around 120,000 Republicans showed up in 2008, and that was a record attendance – the state vote holds outsized importance in the nominating process. It is the first test of the candidates’ popularity and ability to organise. The latter is particularly important as the nominating campaign stretches across primary elections and caucuses in all 50 states and is not finished until late June.
Texas governor Rick Perry, former house speaker Newt Gingrich and Minnesota representative Michele Bachmann all trailed the top three Iowa candidates. Gingrich on Monday went so far as to predict his own defeat, and Paul said he does not envision himself in the White House.
Neither Santorum nor Paul is likely to be as serious a challenge to Romney nationally as would Perry and Gingrich, who have both fallen back in polls in recent weeks.
“Do not settle for less than what America needs to transform this country. Moderate candidates who try to appeal to moderates end up losing,” Santorum said Monday in a slap at Romney.
Romney faces the same challenge he did in 2008: winning over a conservative base that’s uncomfortable with his moderate past. In 2008, socially conservative voters united behind Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, denying Romney a first-place finish and contributing to his eventual defeat.
This time, Romney’s trying to win Iowa by arguing he’s the most electable candidate against Obama – a pitch that’s winning over conservatives who desperately want to beat the president.
After today’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 in the state’s January 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 January 21 in South Carolina. Romney also plans to visit South Carolina this week.