On the eve of the first balloting of the 2012 presidential primary season, six Republican contenders made their last pitches to voters here, with the three leaders elbowing one another for a finish-line advantage.
If the freshest polls are to be believed, three very different candidates are the front-runners heading into caucus night — although in a campaign as muddled as this one, it’s anyone’s guess who will come out on top. Leading into the final stretch are former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.).
The other contenders are already looking beyond Tuesday night’s caucuses. At one time or another, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) were considered formidable candidates. But in the closing hours before voting, they were scrambling to spin something respectable from what is likely to be a disappointing evening and to put forward a rationale for continuing through contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.
“I don’t think I’m going to win,” Gingrich said Monday, lowering expectations while blaming a barrage of negative ads from groups that support Romney.
But he added: “I think we’ve begun to lay out the themes that will work. I think we’ve seen Romney do his most intense negatives, and we now have had time to think through how to respond.”
The final full day of campaigning before the caucuses felt part county fair, part reality television. Gingrich appeared in the town of Independence with Big Bud, the world’s largest tractor. Santorum’s surprise guests in Polk City were
the Duggar family
, stars of the TLC hit show “19 Kids and Counting” (previously known as “17 Kids and Counting” and “18 Kids and Counting”).
Romney — along with wife Ann, brother Scott and three of his five sons — logged more than 250 miles in four cities, arguing electability and inevitability.
“We’re gonna win this thing,” Romney told more than 300 supporters at an afternoon rally in Marion, where he received his loudest and most enthusiastic reaction of the past week.
Supporters such as Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) emphasized the more pragmatic calculation that many Iowa Republicans will be making as they ponder whether to support a front-runner with a moderate record that many conservatives mistrust.
“Think about this question,” said Thune, a favorite of the right, at a chilly morning event at the Davenport fairgrounds. “Who is best equipped to actually win the election in November and to defeat Barack Obama?”
The front-runners represent a stark choice: Romney, the establishment favorite; Paul, the libertarian iconoclast with a young and passionate following; and Santorum, the conservative long shot who is experiencing a late-breaking surge resulting from his own tenacity and the collapse of several rivals.