DeWITT, Iowa — Rick Perry drew standing-room-only crowds. Michele Bachmann lost her voice. Rick Santorum made a duel pitch —for votes and cash.
And all mixed serious policy talk with everyday chit-chat while doggedly, if not desperately, traveling the state, from Dubuque in the east to Council Bluffs in the west and back again in their individual quests for late-game surges in the Republican presidential race.
Running behind in the polls ahead of the Jan. 3, Iowa caucuses, this trio of conservatives campaigned the old-fashioned way, in town squares, coffee shops and community centers, with routes so well-trodden that they sometimes came within hours of crossing paths in the same city.
"I grew up with snow. I grew up a little farther north than most people realize," Perry told one packed diner here as snow began falling outside — a Texas governor with a Southern drawl trying to connect with Midwesterners who craned their necks to snap pictures of him. He wandered through the Whisk Away CafÉ to talk economics with patrons eating chicken and dumplings. Later, he walked through town and ducked into a barbershop to laugh it up with retired veterans in for a trim.
Hours after that, Bachmann was the center of attention in this eastern Iowa town, speaking to county Republicans at a community center and reminding them, as she does often, that she spent her childhood in Iowa. "This election is our last chance," the Minnesota congresswoman said, delivering a sober message in a raspy voice after shaking every voter's hand. "We cannot afford to get this election wrong. This is our exit ramp."
Bachmann and Perry each logged more than 1,000 miles last week aboard campaign buses that made stops at gas stations and catering companies, sports bars and churches. Santorum, who visited each of the state's 99 counties on his own tour earlier this year, is spending the run-up to the caucuses returning to many of those places.
"Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery," Santorum said, poking at Perry and Bachmann.
The three — their presidential candidacies likely come down to strong finishes in Iowa— are betting that Republicans here will reward them for engaging in the hand-to-hand, retail campaigning that Iowans typically demand of White House hopefuls. The leading contenders in polls — Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul — have simply bopped into the state on occasion to woo voters rather than planting themselves in the state.
To varying degrees, Romney, Gingrich and Paul have chosen to compete primarily through TV advertising, nationally televised debates and interviews on media outlets like Fox News Channel. And that strategy has seemed to pay off for them; they are clustered at the top of the GOP field — at least for now.
Little more than a week before the caucuses, the race in Iowa is arguably any candidate's to win given that polls show that many likely caucus-goers are still undecided or willing to change their minds. So, it's not out of the realm of possibility that someone other than those three could get first, second or third place in the caucuses that typically winnow the presidential field ahead of the next-up New Hampshire primary.
To be sure, time is short for them to rise. And, for Bachmann and Santorum at least, money is, too.
Among the trio, Perry is the only one with the cash to run ads — $4.4 million so far on the air here. Santorum, by contrast, has aired his first TV ad just twice so far for about $24,000, and just rolled out his second spot Friday. And the cash-strapped Bachmann is only just now starting to run radio and TV commercials in the homestretch, her first since before her August straw poll victory in Iowa. In them, she stresses her Christian values and that she's "an Iowa girl from Waterloo." The TV ads offer testimonials from voters she encountered so far on her 99-county tour. Until now, she'd largely been relying on constant interviews with national broadcast outlets to reach voters.
Given the time and money constraints, the candidates have little choice but to canvass Iowa's small towns to find votes with old-school persuasion — and hope for the best.
Pack a bed and breakfast's living room for a rousing indictment of Washington? Perry is the guy to do it, even though his message isn't breaking through. Pose for pictures at a rest stop? Bachmann does it, even though only a dozen fans show up and she's there just minutes. Challenge Iowans on their knowledge of home-state trivia? Santorum is on it.
The schedules are tough.
In one day, Bachmann made 10 stops — and a primetime appearance on Fox News Channel.
The voters are skeptical.
Dale Peters, a retiree, followed Perry from business to business hoping to hear him speak and was disappointed, complaining: "Is he going to do anything other than shake hands? People want to hear him, not just see him. So far, all he's done is smile."
For all three, the plea is the same in the closing days of the Iowa caucuses. And it's a humbling one.
"Don't defer to national polls or pundits," Santorum told supporters in an Iowa City living room. And Bachmann told the parents of high school students: "I need your support on Jan. 3 ... We are really going to surprise the nation on Jan. 3, Iowa."