DES MOINES, Iowa — Mitt Romney is the clear Republican front-runner in Iowa in the final days before the first voting in the 2012 presidential election. But that's where the glimmer of clarity ends in this unpredictable nomination race.
Five others are fighting, as they have all year, to emerge as the alternative to the former Massachusetts governor.
The ascendant Rick Santorum and Rick Perry are battling to be the preferred candidate of social conservatives. Libertarian-leaning Ron Paul is working to preserve support that's starting to slip. Newt Gingrich is struggling to end his sharp slide. Michele Bachmann is hardly a factor.
While much can happen before Tuesday's caucuses, at this point there's evidence that Romney is in strong contention to win. Interviews with operatives inside and outside the campaign, along with public and internal campaign polls, show him leading the pack. He's aided by a split among conservative voters who are dividing their support among the field.
Those same interviews and polling also suggest that Paul has faded some after a surge this month, while Santorum and Perry are climbing.
With polls showing a large contingent of undecided voters, the candidates pressed their closing messages, went out with final ads and scampered across the state.
Notably absent was Paul, the Texas congressman who returned to his home state and had no campaign events in Iowa. Polls earlier in December showed him narrowly leading. But according to later surveys and to GOP activists in the state, his support has ebbed in light of attacks on his foreign policy positions.
Despite these shifting dynamics, two things were clear on the final weekend before the first votes of 2012: The yearlong effort to establish a consensus challenger to Romney had failed and Romney's carefully laid plan to survive Iowa was succeeding.
"This president has been a failure," Romney told hundreds of supporters packed into the Old Salt Restaurant in Hampton, N.H., making an overnight trip to the leadoff primary state. The vote there is Jan. 10.
Romney quickly returned later Saturday to conservative Plymouth County and more populous Woodbury County, both winning area for him in Iowa during the 2008 GOP race. He finished second in the state that year behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, although Arizona Sen. John McCain captured the party's nomination.
Romney has sounded more confident and kept his attention focused on Democratic President Barack Obama. Large crowds turned out for Romney this past week during his bus tour.
Romney was headed eastward Sunday and planned to campaign Monday in cities he won four years ago — Cedar Rapids, Davenport and Dubuque. He wants to maximize the edge he holds in critical areas rather than risk underperforming in places where more ardent conservatives are leery of his Mormon faith and shifting positions on social issues.
Romney has looked beyond his GOP rivals and drawn a straight-up comparison with Obama. One new advertisement tries to offer an upbeat, optimistic message of hope for an improved economy that only the former private sector executive can deliver.
Polls showed Romney with his biggest lead of the campaign, although not with more than 25 percent of the vote.
Santorum focused on southern portions of rural Iowa, where the former Pennsylvania senator has made a point of visiting more often than his rivals.
Once overlooked, Santorum has risen in the past several weeks as Gingrich's early December edge evaporated under a barrage of negative advertising by pro-Romney allies. CNN/Time and NBC/Marist polls this past week put Santorum in third place, ahead of Perry, Bachmann and Gingrich for the first time.
Santorum has gained steam as a strong social conservative where rivals Perry and Bachmann have failed to emerge.
In a new ad Saturday, Santorum contended he was the field's one true conservative, but also capable of winning, given his election success in Pennsylvania, a swing-state.
The 30-second spot, just the third for Santorum's cash-strapped campaign, called him "a trusted conservative who gives us the best chance to take back America."
Social conservatives who rallied behind Huckabee in 2008 haven't settled on a single candidate this time. For example, Des Moines-area talk radio conservatives Simon Conway and Steve Deace made competing endorsements Friday — Conway for Perry, Deace for Gingrich.
Gingrich has tried to slow his slide by sticking to a positive theme, while continuing to note the beating he's taken by millions of dollars in attack advertising by Paul and a political action committee bankrolled by Romney supporters.
"I think Iowa could actually dramatically change people's understanding of what works in politics if you repudiate that kind of negativity," Gingrich told 150 people at a Council Bluffs restaurant Saturday.
Perry has seen his fortunes improve some, by advertising the most aggressively. Of the more than $3 million in television ads he has spent, the final round included spots promoting him as a Washington outsider, and Santorum, Bachmann, Gingrich and Paul as insiders.
The Texas governor emphasized his Christian faith as he fought for the backing among the influential yet divided, bloc of social conservative voters in Iowa.
Perry's advisers see Santorum within reach and have begun attacking the former senator for having supported spending on home-state pet projects, an unpopular position in these tough economic times.
Santorum charged Perry with hypocrisy: "He had a paid lobbyist in Washington looking for earmarks."
Perry was the first to attack the rising Santorum, who appeals to similar Christian conservatives Perry needs.Comment on this story
Perry was doing his best to visit key areas his later-starting campaign had yet to touch, such as Republican standard Fort Dodge in north central Iowa, as he neared the end of a two-week bus tour.
Despite his effort to portray himself as a reliable conservative, Perry has had to clarify his position on opposing abortion rights and said Friday that he would like English to be the country's official language. It's a position he had not taken in Texas, home of millions of Spanish-speaking residents.
Associated Press writers Holly Ramer in Campton, N.H., Steve People in Hampton, N.H., and Shannon McCaffrey in Council Bluffs contributed to this report.