Evan Vucci, Associated Press
DES MOINES, Iowa — Mitt Romney is the clear Republican front-runner in Iowa in the final days before the first voting in the 2012 presidential election. But that's where the glimmer of clarity ends in this unpredictable nomination race.
Five others are fighting, as they have all year, to emerge as the alternative to the former Massachusetts governor.
The ascendant Rick Santorum and Rick Perry are battling to be the preferred candidate of social conservatives. Libertarian-leaning Ron Paul is working to preserve support that's starting to slip. Newt Gingrich is struggling to end his sharp slide. Michele Bachmann is hardly a factor.
While much can happen before Tuesday's caucuses, at this point there's evidence that Romney is in strong contention to win. Interviews with operatives inside and outside the campaign, along with public and internal campaign polls, show him leading the pack. He's aided by a split among conservative voters who are dividing their support among the field.
Those same interviews and polling also suggest that Paul has faded some after a surge this month, while Santorum and Perry are climbing.
With polls showing a large contingent of undecided voters, the candidates pressed their closing messages, went out with final ads and scampered across the state.
Notably absent was Paul, the Texas congressman who returned to his home state and had no campaign events in Iowa. Polls earlier in December showed him narrowly leading. But according to later surveys and to GOP activists in the state, his support has ebbed in light of attacks on his foreign policy positions.
Despite these shifting dynamics, two things were clear on the final weekend before the first votes of 2012: The yearlong effort to establish a consensus challenger to Romney had failed and Romney's carefully laid plan to survive Iowa was succeeding.
"This president has been a failure," Romney told hundreds of supporters packed into the Old Salt Restaurant in Hampton, N.H., making an overnight trip to the leadoff primary state. The vote there is Jan. 10.
Romney quickly returned later Saturday to conservative Plymouth County and more populous Woodbury County, both winning area for him in Iowa during the 2008 GOP race. He finished second in the state that year behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, although Arizona Sen. John McCain captured the party's nomination.
Romney has sounded more confident and kept his attention focused on Democratic President Barack Obama. Large crowds turned out for Romney this past week during his bus tour.
Romney was headed eastward Sunday and planned to campaign Monday in cities he won four years ago — Cedar Rapids, Davenport and Dubuque. He wants to maximize the edge he holds in critical areas rather than risk underperforming in places where more ardent conservatives are leery of his Mormon faith and shifting positions on social issues.
Romney has looked beyond his GOP rivals and drawn a straight-up comparison with Obama. One new advertisement tries to offer an upbeat, optimistic message of hope for an improved economy that only the former private sector executive can deliver.
Polls showed Romney with his biggest lead of the campaign, although not with more than 25 percent of the vote.
Santorum focused on southern portions of rural Iowa, where the former Pennsylvania senator has made a point of visiting more often than his rivals.
Once overlooked, Santorum has risen in the past several weeks as Gingrich's early December edge evaporated under a barrage of negative advertising by pro-Romney allies. CNN/Time and NBC/Marist polls this past week put Santorum in third place, ahead of Perry, Bachmann and Gingrich for the first time.
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