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Late, late, late deciders flock to Santorum

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PLEASANT HILL, Iowa - Thirty minutes before the Republican caucus was to begin in Precinct One, in this suburb of Des Moines, a significant number of voters remained undecided. For them, even after a year of campaigning, and seemingly thousands of debates, and millions of dollars in attack ads, there was still plenty of time to think things over.

"I have it narrowed down to two candidates," said Steve Woerpel, of Pleasant Hill. "I have half an hour to go."

"I have not decided yet, either," said Woerpel's wife, Peggy. Both were trying to choose between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.

They weren't alone. When Iowa political observers say the caucuses break late and break fast, they're not kidding. Most of the late deciders seemed to favor Santorum, who won Precinct One with 59 votes.

Romney nearly tied Santorum for first, with 57 votes. After that, Ron Paul was a distant third, with 27 votes; Perry fourth with 16 votes; Newt Gingrich fifth with 15; Michele Bachmann sixth with five votes; and Jon Huntsman in seventh place with all of two votes.

Santorum's edge among late deciders held up statewide. According to polls of voters as they entered the caucuses, Santorum won by a significant margin among voters who had made up their minds in the last few days. Among voters who long ago decided whom to support, Paul was the winner.

This small caucus -- just 181 total votes were cast -- reflected the larger statewide results in another way. Among voters who identified themselves as Republicans, it was a two-way race, with Santorum barely nipping Romney. Among those self-identified Republicans statewide, Ron Paul was a distant third, just as he was in Pleasant Hill. Paul's strongest areas were places with fewer Republicans and more Democrats and independents.

If this Iowa campaign has been an occasionally contentious race, it ended in an entirely civil caucus. "The teacher in me wants to say I want this to be positive," said Gay Lea Wilson, the precinct chair who ran the caucus, "not an attack on our fellow Republicans."

The voters who rose to speak on behalf of their favored candidates all followed Wilson's advice. Nobody attacked anyone else. But all wanted a fight soon -- with Barack Obama.

"We don't need to compromise," said Ben Pegram, the Pleasant Hill man who spoke on behalf of Santorum. "What we need is a warrior."

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner