SIOUX CITY, Iowa – In his 61 years, Greg Moore has never voted in the Iowa caucuses.

That will change next week, he says, because he believes America is in desperate need of a Republican president.

Mitt Romney campaigns in Sioux City on Saturday night. (Felicia Sonmez/Washington Post)

“Just the state that the country’s in right now, I think something’s got to change, you know – and I guess by change, I mean the White House,” said Moore, an engineer from this city on Iowa’s western border.

After hearing Mitt Romney hold a New Year’s Eve town hall at a lodge-style conference center here – his last campaign event of a busy day on the trail, as well as of 2011 – Moore says he remains undecided between the former Massachusetts governor and former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who a new Des Moines Register poll shows is gaining on Romney thanks to an eleventh-hour surge of a momentum.

Moore said he plans to meet Santorum in person for the first time at a campaign event on Sunday as he works toward a decision. The foremost issue on his mind: which GOP candidate stands the best chance of beating President Obama in the general election.

“That is what I’m looking at right now – who can swing the independent voter,” Moore said, as he and dozens of others waited in the lodge’s lobby to meet Romney face-to-face.

So who might that candidate be?

“I think this man right here,” he responded, as he reached out through a throng of supporters to shake Romney’s hand.

Moore’s reason for leaning toward Romney was the prevalent one among many Iowans who came to listen to him before heading out to welcome the new year. In what could be an uphill race, electability is key, and they reason that the other contenders enjoying success in the polls might not hold as much appeal to the independent voter as Romney.

Robert Stewart, a 61-year-old medical doctor, backed former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 2008 GOP caucuses, while his wife, Suzan, a 60-year-old attorney, caucused for Romney. This time around, Robert Stewart is supporting Romney while Suzan is undecided. But asked after Romney’s Saturday night town hall what’s the main issue on their minds, both gave the same answer.

“Electability’s a big deal,” said Robert Stewart.

“It’s really the only thing,” Suzan Stewart interjected.

“Yeah,” her husband continued. “I mean – what’s the biggest objective? Getting a Republican in the White House, and more specifically getting the current Democrat out. And I think that Mitt Romney has the best probability of doing that.”

What about Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who is in a dead heat with Romney in the latest Des Moines Register poll?

“I don’t think of them as being very serious national candidates,” Robert Stewart responded. “I think Rick Santorum will probably not go far after leaving Iowa. Ron Paul ... he certainly has his niche of supporters. They like him a lot. But I don’t think he will appeal to a broad spectrum of the voting population, especially independents. Anybody who wins the presidency is going to have to get independents. I don’t think Santorum has a chance with that group, and I don’t think Ron Paul probably does, either.”

Five hours earlier, and more than 200 miles to the west, a sharply contrasting scene was playing out. There, at a public library in the town of Indianola, Santorum supporters were using a different word in praising their candidate: sincerity.

“I think he’s sincere,” said Reah Adamson, a 62-year-old worker’s compensation adjuster who attended Santorum’s event. “I think it’s important. ... Anybody can say anything and promise anything, but if there’s no sincerity behind it, then what’s the point? He didn’t speak political-speak; he spoke from his heart, and it spoke to my heart, and I think that was the deciding factor.”

Adamson, and her husband, Doug, 52, had traveled from the town of Carlisle 15 miles away to see Santorum address a small group of about 50 supporters at the library. Both had caucused for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in the 2008 caucuses and had arrived undecided at Santorum’s Saturday event – but said that after meeting him in person, they saw many of the same personal qualities in Santorum as they had seen in Huckabee four years ago.

“I think the genuineness of him, his values, the idea of smaller government, the idea of returning some more powers to the state, to be a true leader” is similar to Huckabee, Doug Adamson said.

Not all who attended Santorum’s event were sold on the former Pennsylvania senator, however. Jen Brown, a 43-year-old stay-at-home mom who attended the town hall and is still undecided between Santorum and Romney, said that she had lingering questions about how well Santorum would be able to defend himself in the general election.

“One thing that keeps sticking out in my mind is that I don’t feel he has much opportunity during the debates to defend himself and his positions, because he doesn’t get as many questions,” Brown said. “So I’m curious to learn if he were the Republican candidate, how he feels he could stand up against President Obama, who is so good with the media and so good at answering questions.”

“I just want to make sure that he can support himself and his positions adequately enough,” she added.

Romney, by contrast, has gone a long way toward proving himself on the national stage, Brown said.

“I feel like he’s been around longer, in my mind – I don’t even know if that’s true – but I feel like he’s kind of been through the paces and he knows how to defend himself and defend his positions, and he’s obviously very strong on the economy,” she said.

One thing that both Romney and Santorum backers – as well as those undecided between the two – were able to agree on Saturday was that Paul, who is spending New Year’s in Texas, is unfit to serve as the GOP nominee.

In Indianola, Reah Adamson called Paul “a little extreme for me” and argued that “he doesn’t support Israel.”

“That’s very important to me,” she said. “I don’t like his foreign policy at all. Nothing about it that I like. It sounds good to some people, but there’s no reality in it. None. I just don’t think he’s the right person.”

In Sioux City, Suzan Stewart said that if Paul wins Tuesday’s caucuses, “Iowa will become totally irrelevant.”

“I mean, I don’t think anyone looks at him as a serious presidential candidate,” she said.

And Moore, the first-time caucus-goer, will be a newbie who is not rallying behind Paul.

“I believe his foreign policy needs some tweaking, real big time tweaking. ... We can’t be isolationists anymore; it just won’t work,” he said.