Evan Vucci, Associated Press
LE MARS, 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 win over 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.
"It may be Romney's to lose at this point," said John Stineman, an Iowa GOP campaign strategist who has been monitoring internal and public polls. "And it's a battle among the rest."
While much can happen before Tuesday's caucuses, 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 conservative voters who are dividing their support among the field.
Paul and Romney were vying for the top spot in public polls this week, with Romney edging Paul 23 percent to 21 percent in an NBC/Marist poll published Friday. Santorum was in third place with 15 percent, as he was in a CNN/Time poll published Thursday that showed Romney with 25 percent and Paul with 20 percent.
But interviews and internal campaign polls also suggest that Paul has faded some after a surge this month, while Santorum and Perry are climbing.
But the polls are also showing a large contingent of undecided voters, and the candidates pressed their closing messages, went out with final ads and scampered across the state to garner their support.
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 following 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 to Iowa later Saturday to conservative Plymouth County and more populous Woodbury County, both winning areas for him during the 2008 race. He finished second in the state that year behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, although Arizona Sen. John McCain later 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.
And likewise, Romney's rivals trained their criticism on each other more than him. Polls showed Romney with his biggest lead of the campaign, although not with more than 25 percent of the vote.
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