Chris Carlson, Associated Press
ATLANTIC, Iowa — Voters crammed into the Family Table restaurant in this tiny town Sunday afternoon to catch a glimpse of caucus frontrunner Mitt Romney during a brief campaign stop.
Many, like Curt Blaskey who'd traveled from Des Moines with his 10-year-old son Jacob, said they came because they were still undecided over which presidential candidate to support.
For Blaskey, a truck driver who said he hasn't voted for a Republican for president since Ronald Reagan, the choice was between another vote this year for President Barack Obama, a Democrat, or Romney.
He made up his mind to vote in next Tuesday's GOP caucus for Romney after hearing the candidate criticize Obama for failed policies here and abroad and promise to restore America as a economic powerhouse,
"These last three years are not our destiny," Romney told a dining room packed with at least as many reporters and camera crews as customers. "They're a detour."
After his brief speech, Romney chatted with many in the crowd, including Blaskey and his son. "I'm going to do it," a beaming Blaskey told a reporter. "I agree with what he said."
Atlantic resident Dennis Butler wore a Romney for president sticker but said he also liked the other candidate in the race with Utah ties, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
Huntsman has decided to skip the Iowa caucuses and campaign instead in New Hampshire this week, where the nation's first presidential primary will be held Jan. 10.
"I don't blame Huntsman for not campaigning in Iowa," Butler, a former Iowa legislator, said. Still, Butler said he might end up voting for Romney on Tuesday.
"He has a better chance," Butler said.
Another retiree, Philip Poe of Ankeny, said he also wanted to vote for the candidate who'll be the strongest in the November general election.
But Poe's list of favored candidates were former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in addition to Romney.
Poe said he has concerns about Romney's Mormon faith but is willing to put them aside. "We are Christians, so we look at that a little differently," he said. "But the most important thing is what he can do for this country."
Dale Willenberg, who serves as the LDS Church's branch president in Atlantic, said with Romney in the race it's "a big problem in the election" for those voters who want to support a Republican but mistakenly don't view Mormons as fellow Christians.
Romney told reporters after the event that he's not sure who will come in first in Tuesday's caucus votes. Unlike his 2008 race, Romney has been careful to downplay expectations of a victory in Iowa.
"I'm pleased we're doing well. I can't tell you who's going to win this thing," he said. "But I do believe I'm going to have a great deal of support and that will give me the kind of boost I need as I go into a season of a number of other states."
Asked about the candidate making the biggest advance in the polls in the final days of the race, Santorum, Romney suggested he may continue to gain support.
"Sen. Santorum is a good guy and he's worked hard. I wouldn't be surprised if he's going to do well on Tuesday night and I think a good deal of him," Romney said.
But Romney also reminded voters he'd been endorsed by Santorum in 2008 — and that both Santorum and Gingrich have spent their careers in Washington, D.C. "There's nothing wrong with that," he added.
Later, in Council Bluffs, Romney greeted a bigger crowd in a quaint reception center with a sweeping staircase lined with supporters who couldn't fit into the main auditorium.
He promised them that if he becomes the Republican nominee, he'll be back to Iowa to make sure the state elects a GOP president in 2012.
Romney again talked about the disappointments of the Obama administration, calling the presidential race a "campaign for the soul of America."
Karen Jones, who works at a nearby children's shelter, said after the speech she's just about decided to vote for Romney on Tuesday.
"I like his positive attitude," Jones said. "I get kind of tired of all the naysayers."
She said seeing Romney in person helped. "Sometimes he seems a little slick on TV," Jones said. "He seems more human here."
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