Early last week, a postcard advertising a rally for Mitt Romney arrived at the home of Pam Arnold Powers and her husband, Kelly. As undecided voters, the couple had grown accustomed to such invites. They regularly received mail from Rick Perry and Ron Paul, and Romney himself called several times a week, clogging up their voice mail with automated messages that began “Pamela, this is Mitt.”
“They use our names!” said Ms. Powers, a gregarious 47 year old who, likewise, considers herself on a first-name basis with Mitt, Newt, Rick and the other Republican hopefuls.
The Powerses started concentrating on the Iowa caucuses about a month ago, spending $200 on tickets to a Dec. 10 debate. They have spent days and weeks warming and cooling to candidates.
They are trying to recapture the electricity they felt four years ago when Michelle Obama took Ms. Powers’s arm in front of the pork tent at the Iowa State Fair, the first step in their journey off the Republican rolls and into the fold of Obama voters.
Now, political disappointment and personal progression have led them back to the GOP, but the Powerses are scrambling to find someone who possesses the attributes on their checklist — electability, passion, depth and strong moral values. Like the vast ranks of their ambivalent brethren who will determine the winner of the Iowa caucuses and possibly the Republican nominee, the Powerses are still having a tough time.
“I’ve got to figure it out by Tuesday,” Ms. Powers said.
At 7:10 a.m. Friday, Mr. Powers, a 50-year-old mortgage banker in tapered-temple glasses, arrived for the Romney rally outside a local supermarket in a red golf sweatshirt. His wife, who also thought the event would be held indoors, arrived soon after in a yellow sweater, black vest and paisley-printed slacks.
Romney staff members offered them signs to hold. They declined, instead keeping their hands warm in their pockets.
Romney’s bus arrived in an area of the parking lot marked off by upended shopping carts. The Powerses cheered as the candidate, his wife and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took turns testifying to Mitt Romney’s love of America.
As Romney thanked people for coming, Ms. Powers found herself deep in conversation with another undecided voter at the foot of the stage. They talked about Romney’s trouble connecting, Perry’s trouble speaking, Paul’s radicalism, Michele Bachmann’s inexperience and Rick Santorum’s fervor.
The Powerses thawed for a few minutes in the supermarket and then drove their beige Saab downtown to give Newt Gingrich, who they had all but written off, a last look at a “Moms Matter Coffee Break” event.
The couple found seats in the back of the small room decorated with Elvis album covers. On stage, GOP pollster Frank Luntz warmed up the audience by showing off his stars-and-stripes sneakers (“especially made for me by K-Swiss”) and asking undecided voters to raise their hands. The Powerses, like most in the room, lifted their arms.
Moments later, Gingrich took the stage. As he spoke about how “in a different world it would have been great not to have been divorced,” Ms. Powers slowed the chewing of her gum. She nodded approvingly as Gingrich talked about how “rights come from our creator.”
When Gingrich made the case that he is more electable than Romney (“I’m a more effective debater”) and decried the millions of dollars spent on negative ads to run his name through the mud, Mr. Powers momentarily stopped checking the photos on his phone to listen.
At the end of the event, Gingrich choked up as he spoke about his mother’s death and the impact “the real problems of real people in my family” had on his policy thinking.
Ms. Powers thoughts turned to her own mother, who had died on Christmas Eve 2009, after a battle with cancer. The ordeal, she said, strengthened her Catholic faith, which in turn led her to seek a Republican candidate who shares her moral values.
When Gingrich finished speaking, his cheeks shining with tears, she clapped wildly.
“People are going to go nuts on the crying, but that was as real as anything you can see,” she said as she left the coffee shop. “I thought Newt was off my ballot. But Mitt doesn’t make that connection.”
The couple fueled up on moo shoo pork slices at Fong’s Pizza and talked about Santorum as a “a victorious underdog” and Romney as a “last man standing.”
Mr. Powers lamented the “bombardment” of anti-Gingrich television ads from Romney-supporting super PACs. “It has influenced us,” he said unhappily. His wife excused Romney of any blame for the ads and then spotted one of Gingrich’s daughters walking into the restaurant. “You picked a great place!” she called out to her. Hearing no response, she turned back to the fortune cookies on the table.
“Ooooh look!” she said, reading the fortune: “Linger over dinner discussions this week for needed advice.”
The couple stopped home to check voice mails (Dan Quayle called on behalf of Romney, Romney called on behalf of Romney) and changed into warmer clothes for the drive out to Marshalltown to see Santorum.
As their car slid by acres of crushed pale cornstalk, Ms. Powers rebuked her husband for failing to photograph her “arm-in-arm with Mitt today” and to be ready with the camera “when Rick comes.”
Each booth at the Legends American Grill had its own flat-panel television tuned to the Iowa State football game. In a space off the dining room, a small group of potential voters, outnumbered by the national media, sat waiting for the candidate. The Powerses squeezed into the back and craned their necks to see Santorum’s entrance. He wore an Iowa State sweater-vest and spoke under muted TVs tuned to C-SPAN, which showed him speaking, on a seven-second delay, to the voters in the room.
Ms. Powers clapped vigorously as Santorum talked about “the crossroads of American civilization” and asserted that “I know life begins at conception.” As the event plodded on, her husband grew less interested, preferring to text friends as Santorum responded to short questions with long answers. After he spoke for an hour, audible sighs emanated from reporters in the room and a waitress adjusted the thermostat, which read 83 degrees. Santorum, standing before a lighted fireplace, kept talking and, at the one-hour 22-minute mark, he took the last question of the evening.
“How will you conserve your integrity when you’re operating in the Washington machine?” Ms. Powers asked from the back. She maintained eye contact with Santorum throughout his lengthy answer. When the event broke up, she stepped into the dining room with a broad smile across her face.
“Done!” she exclaimed, her face flush from the heat. “I know who I’m caucusing for. No one talks like that.”
Her husband, less impressed, shrugged.
On the drive back to Des Moines, night blotted out the barren fields, and the couple debated Santorum’s performance. “His answers are too long,” said Mr. Powers. “That’s the beauty of Rick Santorum,” his wife countered.
They talked about his answer on Iran. “He said we’re going to blow ’em up,” said Mr. Powers. “I didn’t hear that at all,” Ms. Powers said.
They compared his substantive answers to Romney’s patriotic “pep rally,” but then Ms. Powers suggested she hadn’t decided after all.
“It would be interesting, at the very least,” Ms. Powers said, “to go see Mitt in that kind of venue.”