Anything can-happen feel in Iowa's 2012 vote

By Thomas Beaumont

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Nov. 20 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Republican presidential hopeful, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney pauses while speaking during a town hall event in Peterborough, N.H., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2011. Romney is campaigning for the nation's earliest presidential primary, which is less than two months away.

Michael Dwyer, Associated Press

ANAMOSA, Iowa — The race for the Republican presidential nomination is deeply unsettled with an anything-can-happen feel six weeks before Iowans start the state-by-state process of choosing a GOP challenger for President Barack Obama.

Hoping to sway the many voters who are still undecided, most of the contenders visited the state in the past week and the pace of campaigning is certain to accelerate after Thanksgiving, when the monthlong sprint to the Jan. 3 caucuses begins. A crush of new TV ads is certain. Expect mailboxes filled with brochures and repeated visits by candidates to diners, town squares and other must-stop venues.

"People are getting close to decision time," former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, one of several candidates whose bids depend on a strong Iowa showing, told The Associated Press. "You're going to see some coalescing in the next couple of weeks."

A recent poll found that 60 percent of Republicans who plan to participate in the caucuses are willing to change their minds and 10 percent are fully undecided. That Bloomberg News survey showed a four-way race: Clustered at the top were Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Ron Paul, candidates whose positions, backgrounds and personalities run the gamut. Languishing far behind were Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, who at one point enjoyed huge bursts of support.

Iowa's outcome matters because it will shape the contest in New Hampshire, which holds its primary Jan. 10, and in states beyond.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has started stepping up his efforts in Iowa after playing it cautiously all year. He plans to return to the state Wednesday after skipping a multi-candidate forum in Des Moines on Saturday night.

Nearly all his rivals, promoting themselves as a viable alternative to Romney, gathered on one stage to discuss how their religious faith influences their public life before a large and influential audience of social conservatives.

Considered the one to beat because of his strength on several fronts, Romney spent the weekend in New Hampshire.

In Iowa, he's hoping that social conservatives who make up the GOP's base will splinter their support among the crowded field of candidates who are considered more conservative than Romney. No one has emerged as the consensus choice of those conservatives, though many are trying.

They include Cain, a Georgia businessman, and Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker, who seem just as poised to break out of the pack as they are to fade. Both are seen as attractive for a Republican electorate craving a candidate who will take it to Obama in a no-holds-barred style. But both also are trying hard to weather increased scrutiny.

Cain continues to fight decade-old sexual harassment allegations, along with questions about his grasp of an array of policies. Iowans don't seem to be punishing him for any of it, so far. He cheerfully greeted a crowd of more than 200 at a Dubuque restaurant Tuesday on just his second trip to Iowa in the past three months.

"Herman Cain's support at this point has intensified," Johnson County GOP Chairman Bob Anderson said. "There's been no decrease in his level of support based on the controversy that's erupted."

But Cain has little campaign structure in the state and a tiny staff. Despite the upbeat tone of his visit, he did little outreach to influential Republican activists. He took no audience questions in Dubuque, spent most of his time in Iowa recording a campaign advertisement and headlined a five-minute news conference spent primarily defending an awkward response to an interview question about Libya a day earlier.

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