GOP readies for final sprint in Iowa

With three candidates tangled at the top, and three dark horses looking to make a run, the Republican presidential field will return from the Christmas weekend at full speed for the final push to the Iowa caucuses.

Just over a week before the first votes are cast in the Jan. 3 caucuses, the candidates are getting ready to make their closing arguments to voters in person and on the air.

The most recent Iowa poll, conducted by the American Research Group and released before Christmas, showed Ron Paul taking 21 percent of likely caucus-goers — a slim lead over Mitt Romney at 20 percent and Newt Gingrich at 19 percent.

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But Paul had the rockiest week of the bunch, spending the days leading up to Christmas defending himself against newsletters from the 1980s and '90s that bear his name and contain racist and homophobic content.

Paul has said that he didn’t write the newsletters, didn’t read them at the time and disavows them now. A Des Moines Register poll is expected this week, so the Paul campaign will find out if the media focus and attacks from his rivals have affected his standing with Iowans.

The controversy likely won’t affect Paul’s rabid base of supporters, whom many believe will turn out in force to secure an Iowa victory for the Texas congressman, but it could affect his standing with Iowa’s conservative Christians. Last week Paul attempted to broaden his base by going after this group in a campaign ad that touted his religious faith and anti-abortion-rights stance as opposed to his trademark libertarianism.

Still, Paul is at a considerable advantage with his fully developed ground game in the Hawkeye State, which traditional wisdom says is necessary to turn out voters for what will be a cold caucus day in Iowa.


Paul has stops planned in the Des Moines metro area on Wednesday, will appear at a town-hall meeting hosted by rival Rick Perry on Thursday, and will head up to the conservative northwest part of the state at week’s end.

Romney has spent the early primary season trying to temper expectations in Iowa, but he’s made a late push signaling that he thinks a win is within his grasp.

Still, the former Massachusetts governor is taking the longview this week, spending valuable time courting voters through tele-town-hall meetings in South Carolina, Florida and New Hampshire.

Romney has a double-digit lead in New Hampshire, and a surprise win in Iowa could go a long way toward securing the nomination. He returns to Iowa on Tuesday night and resumes a bus tour of the state on Wednesday.

The Romney campaign also launched a new TV ad in Iowa in which he promises to shrink government and get rid of the Obama administration's healthcare reform law.

Only a month ago, Gingrich surged from way behind to open up a commanding lead in Iowa, but his campaign has wilted under intense media scrutiny and attacks from his rivals over his perceived lobbying, his connections to Freddie Mac, and his multiple divorces.

Gingrich has been the primary target in a flood of negative attack ads running in Iowa, and he lacks the funds to properly combat them.

Polls also show that Gingrich has the softest voter support among the Iowa front-runners, making him the most likely of the top three candidates to underperform on caucus day. He’s also coming off an embarrassing Christmas Day announcement from the Virginia Republican Party that he failed to qualify for state’s primary.

Gingrich is preparing for a bus tour that begins in Dubuque, Iowa, on Tuesday.

Rick Perry finished fourth in the ARG poll with 9 percent, followed by Michele Bachmann at 8 percent and Rick Santorum at 4 percent. Each of these candidates has tried to sell him- or herself to Iowans as the most conservative, each will spend the final days vying for the evangelical vote and each desperately needs a surprise show of support in Iowa to keep his or her campaign alive.

A strong performance on Jan. 3 could propel one of these three into the top tier of candidates, similar to what happened with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008. Anything less could mean an exit before the New Hampshire primary one week later.

In recent weeks, the Perry campaign has directed its message to the state’s conservative Christians, running ads that spotlight his commitment to faith. The Texas governor will resume his 44-stop bus tour on Tuesday, and has between two and four campaign events — each in different cities — every day leading up to the caucuses.

Perry launched a new TV ad Monday that reiterates the Texan's call for a part-time Congress in Washington.

Bachmann is following Santorum’s lead by trying to work in a visit to all 99 Iowa counties before Election Day — an endeavor she undertook just a little over a week ago. While it’s not reflected in the polls, the Minnesota representative has hit the airwaves to say that her campaign has seen a momentous surge in support.

Santorum is last in the polls among those actively campaigning in Iowa — Jon Huntsman has staked his campaign on winning New Hampshire — but the former Pennsylvania senator is the candidate some conservatives are whispering about.

On Sunday, Huckabee said on Fox News that he wouldn’t be surprised to see Santorum ride a wave of late support like he did in 2008.

Santorum shored up his conservative bona fides on Monday, going on his second pheasant-hunting trip of the season with conservative kingmaker Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).

King still hasn’t decided if he’ll endorse before the primary, but he hasn’t hesitated in keeping company with Santorum, who has spent more time in the Hawkeye State than any other candidate.

For those counting, that’s six bus tours, three front-runners, one underdog hoping to surprise, and less than a week before Iowans provide a significant boost to one candidate’s presidential hopes.

Daniel Strauss contributed.