Romney and Santorum surge as Iowa caucuses near

December 28, 2011

For months, the fight for the Republican presidential nomination has been cast as a tough choice: a true conservative vs. someone who can beat President Obama in the fall.

In the final days before the Iowa caucuses, many voters who once hoped for both were realizing that they may not be able to have it all.

“The sad reality is, I’m a fairly conservative person, but you have to send them out east,” said Tim McCleary, 52, who owns a mobile home park. McCleary said he came around to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in the past few days after watching last week’s debate.

While this has been the defining question of the contest all along, there was evidence of growing intensity on both sides of the argument Wednesday as the candidates crisscrossed the state on a frenzied day of campaigning.

Against the backdrop of persistent questions about his conservative credentials, Romney drew enthusiastic crowds as he rumbled across eastern Iowa in a bus making the case that he is the most electable Republican in the field.

A Time-CNN poll released Wednesday put Romney at the front of the pack despite his decision to spend relatively little time in Iowa, where a conservative GOP electorate has resisted his candidacy. Romney had 25 percent support, compared with Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) at 22 percent and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) at 15 percent. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who was the front-runner just a month ago, trailed with 13 percent in the Time-CNN poll.

Most of the other candidates attacked Romney and sought to present themselves as the most genuine conservative in the field.

Pat Sheets, 69, a retired school principal, joined McCleary and scores of other area Republicans in lining up before dawn at a coffee shop in Muscatine, Iowa, to see Romney. “He’s one of my top two — him and Newt,” Sheets said. “We aren’t sure if Newt can win. . . . I think Romney is the person most likely to beat Obama — and, in my opinion, that’s the top objective. Newt has a lot of baggage. I like what Newt says, but I don’t want to waste my vote on somebody who can’t actually win.”

The support lost by Gingrich, whose front-runner status made him the subject of a barrage of negative TV ads, flowed to other candidates, notably Santorum. In one bit of good news for Gingrich on Wednesday, his campaign announced that it had raised $9 million in the past quarter. That is enough money to allow him to respond to some of the negative attacks and continue his campaign into later contests.

After months of being near the bottom of the standings, San­torum has surged, becoming the latest symbol of the Republican electorate’s continuing search for a satisfactory candidate. His new statewide radio ad, “Unite,” promotes his record on abortion and dubs him the “one consistent conservative” in the race.

In an interview Wednesday on CNN, Santorum said: “Polls change; convictions don’t. A lot of people are moving toward my position, trying to move toward the conservative primary.”

If Santorum’s rise demonstrated, yet again, the fickleness of a conservative-minded Republican electorate, Romney’s growing momentum showed something else: This electorate also cares deeply about winning next year.

Hundreds of supporters lined up in Muscatine to hear Romney’s morning pitch. Hundreds more were waiting for him a few hours later in Clinton, where he gave two speeches — one inside a bakery and another at an Italian restaurant across the street.

“The numbers that are showing up are a lot more than we’d expected, and their level of excitement and enthusiasm and their willingness to caucus on my behalf is very encouraging,” Romney said.

Gingrich’s plummet in the polls — he was at 33 percent in a Time-CNN poll in early December — reflects the enormous and effective onslaught of negative TV ads against him that have aired in Iowa this month. Paid for by Paul, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and an independent super PAC supporting Romney, the ads have cast Gingrich as a Washington insider, a lobbyist and politician whose views on climate change call into question his conservatism.

Gingrich has pledged to remain positive in the face of the barrage, but the truth is that he has had few options, with far less money on hand to spend than his leading rivals. Gingrich’s surge came after many months at the bottom of the polls following an implosion of his campaign in June that left his operation a shambles, burdened by debt.

Gingrich is not refraining from criticizing his opponents. He described Paul as “disqualified” from the presidency because he would not try to block Iran from possessing a nuclear weapon, and he mocked Romney for not dis­tancing himself from the independent PAC that is supporting him with ads attacking Gingrich.

Paul, whose supporters have shown fierce loyalty this year and in 2008, the last time he ran for president, is effectively in a dead heat with Romney in Iowa, according to the Time-CNN poll. Well financed and responsible for negative ads against both Gingrich and Romney, Paul has also become a target for his rivals, all of whom, in one way or another, have criticized his foreign policy positions at campaign stops this week.

At the Iowa Speedway in Newton on Wednesday, Paul noted that he has had more contributions from members of the military than any of his rivals. He also tried to tap into the conservative drumbeat of the year by saying he has been more consistent in sounding the alarm against big government and spending than anyone else in the field.

“Just spending money, getting into policing the world and nation-building . . . that gets us into trouble,” he said. “Bring our troops home — stop the spending.”

Paul got a surprise boost at his last event of the day, a “veterans for Paul” rally that drew a big, boisterous crowd at the Iowa Fairgrounds, when he was endorsed by Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson, who has been serving as state chairman for Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.). Three hours earlier, Sorenson was with her at an event in Indianola.

Sorenson, in an interview, said he had been wrestling with the decision for several days and views the GOP race as one between Paul and Romney. “We have an opportunity to stop a bad person named Mitt Romney and elect a good person named Ron Paul,” he said. He added that he does not want a “frugal socialist” in the White House and will do what he can to help Paul win. He declined to talk about his conversations with Bachmann that preceded the surprise defection.

In a statement read to reporters, Bachmann said, “It’s clear that this was a deliberate move by the Ron Paul campaign to discredit our campaign and our growing momentum. Ron Paul is in trouble in Iowa and his campaign is worried about people learning about his dangerous stance on foreign policy and how he will make America less safe.

“Kent Sorenson personally told me he was offered a large sum of money to go to work for the Paul campaign. Kent campaigned with us earlier this afternoon and went immediately afterward to a Ron Paul event and announced he is changing teams. Kent said to me yesterday that ‘everyone sells out in Iowa, why shouldn’t I,’ then he told me he would stay with our campaign.The Ron Paul campaign has to answer for its actions.”

Still, of all the alternatives to Romney, Gingrich has made the most elaborate case, based on his record as House speaker and on the long list of the people he has turned to for ideas and support, that he is best suited to bring a truly conservative agenda to the White House.

Gingrich touted his alliance with Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp in support of low-tax, supply-side economics in the 1970s and ’80s; his opposition to George H.W. Bush’s tax increase in 1990; and his respect for and relationships with such fiscally conservative luminaries as economist Milton Friedman, former presidential contender Steve Forbes and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, meanwhile, cast himself as the one true outsider in the field who could shrink government and shake up the Washington bureaucracy. “Why should you settle for anything less than an authentic conservative who’s going to fight for your views and your values without apology?” he asked a packed room at the Iowa Machine Shed restaurant in suburban Des Moines. Perry also made a play for the most socially conservative Iowa voters by saying this week that he is now opposed to abortion even in cases of rape and incest.

Staff writers Dan Balz, Nia-Malika Henderson, Philip Rucker and Karen Tumulty in Iowa and Sandhya Somashekhar in New Hampshire contributed to this report.

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