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.
"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.
- 23 of the best Shakespearean insults to...
- More than 2,500 confirmed dead in Nepal...
- Mitt Romney to Jacksonville University...
- Former Romney finance chairman courting a...
- Photos: Celebrating 25 years of spectacular...
- How to help Nepal earthquake victims
- Utah construction companies fined, ordered to...
- Ceremonies mark liberation of concentration...
- Former Romney finance chairman courting... 56
- Gay marriage a difficult issue for GOP... 30
- Obama sounds alarm on climate damage in... 29
- House Benghazi panel calls Clinton to... 29
- Yellowstone supervolcano is super big,... 24
- American, Italian hostages killed in US... 22
- Hatch, Lee split on new attorney general 13
- What could McDonald's do to fix its... 11