DES MOINES — Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul are poised to place first and second, respectively, in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, according to most polls and pundits.
But wild fluctuations in the 2012 Iowa caucus campaign have left third place up for grabs.
Political insiders and analysts warned in the weeks leading up to Tuesday's caucuses not to write off the two Ricks — former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
“Santorum could be the surprise. I would not be surprised if he cracked the top three and lives to fight in South Carolina,” said former Iowa House Speaker Chris Rants, R-Sioux City, who endorsed Romney.
“Everybody had their moment in the spotlight except Rick Santorum … Rick Santorum may get his moment at exactly the right time," he said.
“I’m still keeping a close eye on Rick Santorum,” agreed Pete Jeffries, of West Des Moines, a Dallas County Republican. “Iowa caucusgoers reward those who work for their votes, and there’s no question that Santorum has rubbed off a lot of shoe leather.”
The top three finishers in Iowa’s caucuses could see a bump in status and finances going into the primaries for New Hampshire on Jan. 10, South Carolina on Jan. 21 and Florida on Jan. 31.
A poor finish could spell the demise of a campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
But the race has been unpredictable. A recent poll
showed that 43 percent of likely Iowa Republican caucusgoers still could change their minds before Tuesday.
“Predicting the outcome of the Iowa caucuses this year will be the most difficult in my 40 years of studying these events,” said Steffen Schmidt
, a political science professor at Iowa State University
“One distinct possibility is that there will be no clear winner but instead three could come in close to the top … One thing’s for sure. This will be a nail biter year,” he said.
Santorum has held back-of-the-pack status throughout the campaign, despite spending the most time in Iowa.
He’s campaigned in all 99 Iowa counties and spent close to 100 days here, compared with 70 days by Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann
, Iowa’s second most frequent visitor.
A CNN/Time/ORC International poll
taken Dec. 21-27 put Santorum in third place, with 16 percent of support among 452 likely Iowa caucusgoers, behind Romney and Paul but ahead of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich
of Georgia. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Perry is polling in fifth place among seven candidates, with support of 11 percent of likely caucus-goers.
But he also raised the most money in the third quarter — $17.2 million — and is Iowa’s leader in paid political advertising.
Perry and his super PAC, Make Us Great Again
, ran 6,413 ads costing $1.9 million in the Des Moines and Cedar Rapids markets in the past two months.
“Perry has a ton of cash. He’s clearly making a play for the evangelical vote,” Rants said. “Everyone has written off Rick Perry, but I think it might be a little too early to do that. He may be staging a comeback.”
The Texas governor stood at the top of the polls after his Aug. 13 entrance into the race, but stumbled after several poor debate performances.
Perry “has lots of money, looks great on TV, is the only one who's positive and seems happy and is enjoying the debates,” Schmidt said. “He's also the only one who you'd like to grill out with and have a beer with.”
The social conservative, evangelical or “religious right” vote has been split this year among Santorum, Perry and Bachmann.
“I do think some people are giving Perry a second look,” she said.
Yet Bystrom said what separates Paul and Romney from the rest is the level of their support.
“Their support is pretty solid, hovering around 20 percent,” Bystrom said, even before the CNN poll showed Romney leading with 25 percent and Paul at 22 percent.
A Romney victory in the Iowa caucuses would demonstrate that presidential candidates could visit Iowa less often and still win.
Romney has spent about 12 days in Iowa this caucus cycle, after spending $10 million here four years ago and finishing second place in the 2008 Iowa caucuses.
“You could have a strategy where you pay attention to Iowa, but your eye is on the big prize,” Bystrom said.
"When the party continues to pick someone who can’t make it on the national stage, that diminishes the Iowa caucuses as much as anything,” she said.
The youth vote is key to Paul’s support. College students will be on winter break during Tuesday’s caucuses, and the dorms will be closed, which could hurt him.
“If the students come back and caucus for him, Ron Paul has got a very good chance of doing very well and possibly winning Story County,” said Cory Adams, chairman of the Story County Republicans
“He seems to have a really strong college student following. He was here at ISU a couple of weeks ago. Over 1,000 students showed up to see him,” Adams said.
Carol Hill, 50, of Rock Rapids, secretary of the Lyon County Republicans
in northwest Iowa, said she’s a fiscal and social conservative who supports Santorum.
She said Santorum holds true to his values, has beaten incumbent Democrats and has rallied people to work with him across the aisle.
She said she hopes Santorum can pull off a caucus-day surprise.
“I think it would really send a strong message to Washington. Every time you hear on the news, you hear that Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are polling high,” Hill said.
“I go around to a lot of the state. I have yet to speak to any person who is in support of Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich. Everybody I talk to supports Santorum, Bachmann or Paul,” she said.
Hill called Romney and Gingrich “establishment” Republicans and not true conservatives. That’s the same descriptor used by state Sen. Kent Sorenson
, when he defected Wednesday as Bachmann’s Iowa campaign chairman and endorsed Paul for president.
“I would not be surprised if Ron Paul ends up winning the Iowa caucus,” Hill said. “I think it would be just a hoot if Paul, Santorum and Bachmann would be top three, and Gingrich and Romney aren’t even on there.”
The Rev. Michael Ryan, of Pocahontas Regular Baptist Church, chairman of the Pocohontas County Republicans in north central Iowa, said the race comes down to Paul and Bachmann in his county.
He said he does not trust Santorum, who in 1997 campaigned for New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman
, who supports abortion rights.
Gingrich, who a few weeks ago was the front-runner in Iowa, saw his poll numbers dropped after numerous attack ads pointing to his paying $300,000 to resolve 1997 ethics charges, and his consulting firm receiving $1.6 million from mortgage giant Freddie Mac
. He’s in fourth place with 14 percent of the vote, according to the CNN poll.
Bachmann also has seen her poll numbers drop since her Aug. 13 win at the Ames Straw Poll
. The CNN poll pegged her last among the six GOP candidates campaigning in Iowa at 9 percent.
Lynn Campbell covers government and politics for IowaPolitics.com, which is owned by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Policy.