DES MOINES - Last week, it was Newt Gingrich. This week it's Ron Paul. Next week, who knows?
Heading into its final stretch, the campaign for the Jan. 3 Iowa Caucuses remains a flavor-of-the-week affair that is impossible to predict and irresistible to watch. Republican presidential candidates are racing across the state, lighting up living rooms with TV attack ads and hoping for a magical Iowa "moment" that will carry them to New Hampshire, South Carolina and beyond.
"Just when I think it's cleared up, and we're going to get to the finish line, we shuffle the deck,'' said caucus-watcher Craig Robinson, editor of the Iowa Republican.
Consider: Gingrich, labeled the least attractive candidate in Robinson's summertime poll, climbed into the polling lead in early December. Paul, whose isolationist and libertarian views do not fit inside the Republican tent, is packing college campuses and surging. Former national frontrunner Mitt Romney, whose chosen battleground seemed to be anywhere but here, is opening an Iowa front against Newt.
This is Iowa in December before a presidential election year: Climatologically cold but politically feverish. It is a place where Texas Gov. Rick Perry may visit your hotel table to talk college football, where polls have the staying power of overnight TV ratings, and where the next phone call may bring a recording that calls Gingrich a "slippery salamander.''
But it's also where Republican caucus-goers in Iowa -- America's 125,000-member focus group -- are deliberately and publicly charting a course they hope will put their choice in the White House.
"If someone can articulate a hope that America is still great, that will go a long ways,'' said Dan Zumbach, a farmer and legislative candidate from the Cedar Rapids area who is undecided.
Said Romney supporter Phyllis Hansel of Des Moines: "We're all hungry for a champion."
"It isn't some game of running for president," former House Speaker Gingrich said at a Des Moines event, appearing as a well-filled dark suit next to the slim, violet-splashed presence of his wife, Callista. "It's an effort to figure out, what does America have to do to survive? We could lose an American city. As bad as 9/11 was, it's tiny compared to what would happen if terrorists get nuclear weapons.''
Newt's gravitas is selling, but the presence of Mrs. Gingrich No. 3. is raising the collective Iowa eyebrow.
Outside Gingrich's office, law student John Crotty carried a sign that said "No Marriage for Gays But Unlimited Marriages for Newt," while Romney supporter Denise Fouts, of Robins, said of Gingrich: "The woman he is married to is the woman he was having an affair with when he was coming down on Bill Clinton."
But Gingrich backer Shirley Dick of Urbandale said that should not be the litmus test for evangelical Christians. "Part of what we believe is forgiveness,'' she said.
Gingrich's second act in politics is far from his snarling, attack-dog presence in the Clinton era. While foes portray him as "zany" and "unreliable," he has vowed to stay "relentlessly positive" and focus on Obama. He jokes to the crowd about his granddaughter's recommendation that he needs to smile more, then looks a bit pained when he tries one on.
No such smile deficit exists at Romney headquarters. At a recent pizza-and-cookies rally Romney deployed his million-watt beam and surrounded himself with what he has taken to calling his "wife of 42 years," Ann; son Josh, and Minnesota supporters Tim and Mary Pawlenty.
Romney's got the happy family tableau down, but he faces other criticism: That he is a "Massachusacrat" in red-state clothing, not a real conservative. Pawlenty, whose own presidential "moment" never arrived, described Romney as "the most knowledgeable and capable and ELECTABLE candidate in this field.''
Romney, who made his fortune in the leveraged-buyout business at a private equity firm, relentlessly pitches his belief in a merit-based society.
Those who succeed on merit, he said, "reap rewards for themselves and lift the entire society.'' Later that evening, he offered to bet Perry over a difference in opinion -- and set the price at $10,000.
Paul is the wild card. No one packs them in quite like the 76-year-old doctor-congressman from Texas, where his libertarian views -- no foreign wars, ending the war on drugs, no income tax -- are said to be so far right they have met the left. As the others rise and fall, Paul steadily works his magic on college campuses and in well-attended town halls, and polling suggests his followers are fervent and committed -- meaning they will turn out on Jan. 3.
Bachmann as underdog
Iowa's critical social and religious conservatives are still being courted heavily by Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Perry, who recently went on the airwaves to accuse President Obama of a "war on religion."
Bachmann is fervently hoping her moment didn't come and go in her narrow win over Paul in the Iowa straw poll in August. The day after her win, Bachmann's momentum got stomped flat by Perry's dramatic entry into the race and the Minnesotan has struggled to regain her footing ever since.
At a recent GOP women's Christmas party at the Cedar Rapids Country Club, Bachmann greeted diners with the two-handed clutch of an old friend. Against the backdrop of a jazz combo riffing on Dave Brubeck's "Take Five,'' Bachmann posed for innumerable smartphone photos, told Zumbach that rival Santorum would make a good vice president and chatted about a Minnesota church conference that undecided caucus-goer Debbie Mason was interested in.
In brief remarks to about 50 people, she told her family history as the daughter of "Iowegian" immigrants, praised Texas Gov. Rick Perry's wife, Anita, who was waiting to make her own pitch, and reminisced about "lutefisk and lefse" Christmases past in Waterloo.
"Those traditions that we as mothers pour into our children -- we can't imagine the dividends they pay over time,'' she said.
In the sunny lunchroom of Nationwide Insurance in Des Moines, Bachmann faced a question about what she has accomplished. Speaking of the upcoming constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, Bachmann said: "I carried the marriage amendment in Minnesota. ... I was never in the majority, and yet we still ultimately were able to prevail and put the marriage amendment on the ballot, and get it through. Everyone said it couldn't be done. Then I ran for the U.S. Congress."
None of the Iowans seemed to know that Bachmann left the Minnesota Legislature in 2006, that the amendment was not put on the ballot until five years later, and that it will not be voted on until next November.
Bachmann remains very much a long shot. But her campaign manager, Eric Woolson, described the "ground game" of persuading, identifying and mobilizing supporters to go to their caucuses and vote Michele.
"Someone always gets hot at the end,'' said Woolson, who managed Mike Huckabee's surprise Iowa victory four years ago. "I think we're well-positioned for that.'' Woolson said the campaign has a presence in each of Iowa's 99 counties -- a ground-game advantage under old-school rules that may be less so in a race more focused on rhetorical passion than organizational precision. Bachmann landed solid shots against Paul (over Iran) and Gingrich (over abortion and his lobbying) in Thursday's final Iowa debate, and launched a whirlwind statewide bus tour on Friday. Perry, meanwhile, has launched a 44-city bus tour focused on "faith, family and freedom."
The longing for a last-minute lightning strike is what energizes Santorum, whose small but committed flock loves it when he vows to wield a "meat ax" to rid the State Department of those who don't share "mainstream values."
"I like that he connects social issues, the family, with the economy,'' said Lori Jungling, hefting 10-month-old Jodi in a sling during a recent campaign event.
Santorum, a tireless campaigner who leads the field in Iowa appearances, remains hopeful, as every contender must try to be.
"We haven't had our moment yet -- we feel like our moment is coming,'' he said. "It's better to have your moment now than six months before the caucus.''