DES MOINES, Iowa — For Republicans here, the ideal presidential candidate would blend Ron Paul's ideological passion with Mitt Romney's electability. Newt Gingrich's intelligence with Rick Perry's evangelical appeal. Add a dash of social conservatism from Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum — and stir.
Yet, as Lila Reynolds, one of many undecided Iowa Republicans, laments: "There is no Prince Charming."
"What am I looking for?" Reynolds, 44, said, as she crammed into LJs Neighborhood Bar and Grill in Waterloo to see Gingrich ahead of Tuesday's caucuses. "It's hard to describe, but you know it when you see it."
The "it' factor was large in people's minds as they sifted through their choices in the final hours before Iowa becomes the first state in the nation to have a formal say in picking a Republican challenger to face President Barack Obama next fall.
Interviews with more than three dozen Iowa voters in recent days found a restless GOP electorate here, with many voters still up for grabs. A bunch seemed to be struggling with exactly what they wanted, not just from a particular candidate but from the heart and soul of a Republican Party fractured between tea party activists, evangelical Christians and mainline fiscal conservatives.
No single candidate has brought those threads together in voters' minds.
Mary Ann Anderson, of Atlantic, had positive reviews of all the candidates but hadn't settled on someone yet, saying she has "to pray on it." And Bill Brauer, of Polk City, said the decision was so difficult that he was waiting until the last minute, insisting: "I'm going to make up my mind tonight." And Janeane Wilson, who lives in Waukee, was just as stumped, adding: "I'm one of those people who will probably make up my mind as I'm walking up to the caucuses."
For many voters, no one seems quite right. And for a bunch, the process boils down to a hard choice between the safe, pragmatic candidate who stands the best chance of trouncing Obama or the fervent, ideological purist who sets the heart racing but is a far riskier bet in a general election.
They're mulling these questions: Do they value electability more than anything else and buy Romney's argument that he alone stands the best chance of defeating Obama? Or do they vote with their emotions and side with a candidate like Santorum considered a Republican who more closely advocates on their behalf on social issues? There's a third option: stay home, frustrated at the prospect of nominating someone who doesn't entirely fit the bill.
Just the other day, Grant Allen was struggling as he left a rally for Gingrich in Atlantic. He clutched a "Newt 2012" yard sign and mused: "Maybe I'll actually put this one up."
He said he was attracted to the former House speaker's intelligence and bold ideas but not enough to sign on with him yet, saying: "I worry about the baggage but he gave me some confidence today."
"I'm almost there with him but need to listen to one more."
Asked who, Allen grimaced: "Romney."
The reluctance to back the former Massachusetts governor — and the search among conservative voters for someone other than him — is one of the defining themes of this Republican race. Romney, who lost the 2008 nomination to John McCain, doesn't stoke the passions of conservatives who are skeptical about his Mormon faith and reversals on some social issues.
For months, Republicans here and nationally have rallied behind one alternative to him only to turn away and move on to another. Their flirtations have been brief in a race has seen no less than a half-dozen candidates at the front of the pack.
Muddling matters further has been a lack of consensus within the GOP about attributes the nominee needs to possess.
Many tea party activists have tended to seek out tough-talking Republicans who will take it to Obama. A chunk of cultural and religious conservatives crave a candidate who adheres strongly to their top issues, like opposition to abortion and gay rights. And a slew of establishment Republicans has hungered for a fiscal conservative who will reverse the bloat of the George W. Bush years.
"As a conservative, I'm afraid," said Tom McCartney, of Dubuque. "We keep talking about the general election and who is best, and that seems to be Mitt Romney."
"But I'm worried we're going to pick a moderate like Romney and we're still going to lose. We held our nose with McCain and still lost. I don't want another McCain. I hope we don't do that again."
Curtis Smith, of Cedar Rapids, was considering Santorum, after developing doubts about Bachmann's chances.
"She has all the right answers but I'm scared she won't win," Smith said. As for Santorum, he added: "I don't really know what to think about him."
The inability of many Republicans to find a Mr. or Mrs. Right who makes every segment of the GOP happy is reflected in the large number of undecided voters in Iowa. A Des Moines Register poll released Saturday found 41 percent of likely caucus-goers could be persuaded to change their minds, while another 7 percent had no first choice candidate. One percent said they were not sure who to support.
The race here is likely to come down to which way this crop of fickle Republicans breaks.
With the economy still struggling, voters seem to be looking less at the nuts and bolts of the candidates' economic policies, than at someone with the leadership and vision to pull the country up by its bootstraps. They draw parallels to Ronald Reagan coming in after Jimmy Carter, bringing with him a new tone to a country in malaise.
"Anyone could win this," said Ray Starks, a 17-year-old from Dyersville who is participating in his first caucuses. "People still haven't made up their minds. We're still looking for Ronald Reagan — someone who has a message, someone you want to follow."
In Iowa — known for its love of grassroots, retail politics — personal contact is often helping seal the deal — and that could bode well for Santorum, who is surging, based on the polls, after working the state one voter at a time for the past few years.
It also could benefit lower-tier candidates like Bachmann and Perry, who spent the past month canvassing small towns in hopes of rallying last-minute support.
Robert Byrne, a retail manager for the Black Bear Diner in Sioux City, has winnowed his choices down to those two. He likes Perry's record on jobs back in Texas. Bachmann earned his consideration after she talked to him about her plan to cut corporate taxes and ease other burdens on small businesses.Comment on this story
"She looked me right in the eye and said 'We're small-business people too,' and that helps a lot," Byrne said. "It's important that I got to look at her and shake her hand."
Julie Collins had pretty much written off Perry, until she heard him speak at a corner coffee shop in Pella.
"Now I'm not so sure," she said. "He's talking about issues that matter to us: faith, values, pro-life, traditional marriage. He is everything we need to get this country turned around."
If there's anything certain in this woefully unpredictable race it's this: voters are still listening in these final hours.
Associated Press writers Charles Babington, Brian Bakst, Philip Elliott, Beth Fouhy and Mike Glover in Iowa contributed to this report.