Iowans prepare to cull GOP field

An estimated 41 percent of Iowa voters still haven't decided which candidate they'll back.

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Evangelical voters make up a huge block of those voting Tuesday in the GOP Iowa Caucus and many are still undecided in who to support. Michele Bachmann and her husband Marcus were welcomed warmly Sunday morning, January 1, 2012 into the Jubilee Family Church in Oskaloosa, Iowa.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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DES MOINES - They have been bombarded with ads, harangued with telephone calls, polled and re-polled. Finally, as the nation watches, Iowans will go to their neighborhood caucuses Tuesday night to separate the leaders from the wannabes in the first contest for the GOP nomination in the 2012 presidential election.

On the eve of the pivotal day, voters seemed to be breaking for establishment heavyweight Mitt Romney, libertarian favorite Ron Paul and Christian conservative Rick Santorum, who appears to have claimed much of Michele Bachmann's earlier support. But many remained undecided, giving hope to the Minnesota representative and two other falling contenders, Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

"I'm still watching to see which way it swings," said Lisa Meader, who attended a large rally for Paul on Monday in an overflowing hotel ballroom in Des Moines. Meader's husband, Ben, chanted enthusiastically for the Texas congressman, but she was still mulling a vote for Gingrich, the former House speaker.

Gingrich, Romney, Paul, Perry, Bachmann and the recently withdrawn Herman Cain: They've all had their turns at the top of the GOP standings.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, now seeks to retain his standing as the presumptive favorite. But momentum seemed to be building for Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who has been climbing out of the single digits he used to inhabit with Bachmann.

As Santorum shouted to be heard inside a hot, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at a Pizza Ranch restaurant in Boone on Monday, a girl fainted. Santorum, who has waged a long, lonely campaign in Iowa for months, paused later to check on her condition.

"She's alert, she's fine," he said. "I don't think they were fainting for me. It was a little warm in there."

Among those joining the Santorum surge were the Duggars from Arkansas, a Christian couple with 19 children and their own nationally syndicated reality TV show. "After church yesterday, we hopped on the bus and started heading up to Iowa," said the father, Jim Bob Duggar. Pleading with Christians not to split their vote, Duggar said Santorum is "the one that we've got to all get behind. He's the one that families, Christians throughout America, need to support."

Romney and Perry, the two best-funded candidates, have been a constant presence on Iowa television and radio. Not far behind has been Paul, who generates some of the largest crowds.

Struggling to keep up is Bachmann, who launched her first television ad, "Iron Lady," Monday. In a bitter cold wind in West Des Moines, Bachmann dropped in at a café on Elm Street, where she was followed by media and curious high school students from Cincinnati.

"I have a lot of hope," said Larry Abbott, a retired policeman among those who seemed to have come out to support Bachmann. "A lot of times the polls are wrong."

Bachmann, who won the Iowa straw poll, placed last in the most recent Des Moines Register poll, but cedes no ground. "This is our time," she told reporters. "America needs a new strong leader, and I intend to be that leader."

Gingrich, last month's poll leader, appeared resigned to a loss. After a speech bashing President Obama as "singularly incompetent," Gingrich acknowledged to reporters on Monday that his chance of a top finish is slim. "I don't think I'm going to win," he said.

The admission was stark, but the former front-runner predicted he would bounce back and that Romney, the longtime top-tier candidate, would not go the distance. "Romney is proving decisively that the moderate vote is about 23 percent," Gingrich told reporters. "That's going to tell the story."

Shifting passions

The big story in Iowa has been the ever-changing allegiances of GOP voters, an estimated 41 percent of whom remained undecided in the final days.

Bill Yewell, a 70-year-old from Boone, said he looked at Santorum for the straw poll but voted for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. "He quit the next day," Yewell recalled.

He has come back to Santorum. "Everybody else talks about the economy and that's their big thing," Yewell said. "[Santorum] talks about the social issues."

The candidates' zig-zagging fortunes have become the stuff of Iowa political lore.

"It's very different," said Ted Gorman, a Madison County newspaper owner who has followed the caucuses since the 1970s. "The intensity of the media, the advertising and the campaigning is threefold more than I've ever seen.

"We just can't seem to settle," added Gorman, a Republican. "I like 'em all. But maybe we don't worship or adulate candidates like the liberals did four years ago with Barack Obama."

The white-hot glare of national media attention has also been felt. A live shoot of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program had a Des Moines coffee shop opening at 3 a.m. on Monday. By 5:30, the shop was packed to capacity.

While waiting for Gingrich to appear in Independence, population 6,000, one man greeted another with "I thought I saw you on the national news last night." The attention was shrugged off.

The media, the nightly calls, the mailers "gets a little overbearing," said Nyal Dage, 68, a semi-retired corn and soybean farmer who came to see Gingrich.

"But if you want to be in the national attention as far as being the first in the country, that's just one of the things that you want to put up with," he said.

Despite the barrage, Dage has yet to make his final pick. "Actually it's come down to three." But he was coy about which three.

"It's our job to keep the news media guessing," Dage said. "That's kind of the fun part of the caucuses."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune's Washington bureau. Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @rachelsb

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