DES MOINES, Iowa — Three Republican presidential candidates, each claiming to be the truly conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, are launching bus tours Tuesday through this early nominating state.
Just a week before Iowa's leadoff caucuses, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich prepared to rumble through small towns aboard their campaign buses. They're looking for supporters one at a time and hoping to become a roadblock for Romney, who is looking stronger than expected. Romney returns to Iowa on Tuesday after a quick stop in his long-established stronghold of New Hampshire.
Ahead of the Jan. 3 caucuses that officially begin the GOP's nominating calendar, the candidates were returning for a final rush of speeches, meet-and-greet stops and town hall-style meetings. And they are bracing for one last round of advertising, which most observers are expecting to be nasty.
Each campaign has also tried to gauge the level of enthusiasm for Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. The libertarian favorite has built a strong organization here and recent polls suggest he is peaking, a rise that has him tied with or even ahead of Romney — and drawing more scrutiny for his views.
"There's really three primaries going on here," former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania told reporters in Adel, where he went hunting for pheasant and quail. "There's the libertarian primary, which Ron Paul is going to win. Then you've got the moderate primary, which Gingrich and Romney are scrumming for. And you've got three folks who are running as strong conservatives."
He included himself, Bachmann and Perry in that conservative camp. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman signaled early on he would not compete in Iowa and instead plans to start his campaign in New Hampshire.
But with time ticking down in Iowa, several hopefuls are packing their days with rambling road trips to sparsely populated corners of the state. If history is a predictor, some of these candidates will be former candidates after the first contest.
Bachmann last week began her effort to visit each of the state's 99 counties, an ambitious pace that left her darting into diners and gas stations for quick visits. She was set to return to that pace early Tuesday in Council Bluffs, on the state's western edge. By nightfall, she was slated to have visited another 10 counties.
Perry was set to begin his tour in Council Bluffs several hours later. He planned just four stops during his day.
Gingrich was ready to return to the opposite side of the state, with three stops in Dubuque.
Paul was set to return Wednesday for a late push ahead of the New Year's holiday.
Many of those expected to participate in the caucuses remain undecided, and most of the contenders have seen their fortunes rise quickly and then deflate. Romney and Santorum have remained relatively steady: Romney solidly near the top and Santorum consistently struggling to build support.
Yet Santorum alone has achieved the accomplishment of visiting all 99 counties. With more than 350 campaign events behind him this year, he is hoping the early groundwork — and a possible late surge — help him beat expectations.
He was slated to start his day in Fort Dodge, in the deeply conservative far northwest corner of the state.