Mitt Romney is the clear Republican front-runner in Iowa in the final days before the first voting in the build-up to this year’s presidential election, but polls also suggest large numbers of Republicans could change their minds before tomorrow’s caucuses.
Five other candidates are fighting, as they have all last year, to emerge as the conservative alternative to Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, in the state-by-state nominating contests to pick a challenger to Democratic US President Barack Obama in November’s election.
Polls show Obama is vulnerable as he seeks a second term, weighed down with voter dissatisfaction over his handling of the economy and the stagnant recovery from a recession.
Only three or four candidates typically make it out of Iowa with enough momentum and money to continue in the race.
The ascendant Rick Santorum, a former US senator, and Texas Governor Rick Perry are battling to win over social conservatives. Libertarian-leaning US Representative Ron Paul is working to preserve support that is starting to slip. Former House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich is struggling to end his sharp slide. US Representative Michele Bachmann is hardly a factor.
“It may be Romney’s to lose at this point,” said John Stineman, an Iowa Republican campaign strategist who has been monitoring internal and public polls. “And it’s a battle among the rest.”
Although much can happen before tomorrow’s caucuses, public surveys and internal polls, as well as interviews with Republican activists, Iowa voters and political operatives both inside and outside the candidates’ campaigns suggest that Romney is in strong contention to win in Iowa.
A new poll by the Des Moines Register, which has endorsed Romney, late on Saturday showed Romney and Paul statistically even at the front of the pack. Romney had 24 percent and Paul had 22 percent. Santorum was third with 15 percent of likely voters backing him.
Gingrich had 12 percent support and Perry had 11 percent. Bachmann trailed with 7 percent.
Paul, who surged this month, has faded some following attacks on his foreign policy positions as being outside the Republican mainstream. Paul opposes intervening militarily to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, advocates withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan and wants to end US aid to Israel and other allies.
Santorum and Perry are climbing, but evangelical Republicans and cultural conservatives continue to divide their support among the field — giving Romney an opening. And a large contingent of voters has not yet locked in on a candidate as the clock winds down.
Despite rapidly shifting dynamics, two things were clear on the final weekend before the caucuses: The year-long effort to establish a consensus conservative challenger to Romney had failed and Romney’s carefully laid plan to survive Iowa was succeeding. It relies on conservative voters failing to rally behind one candidate.