Mitt Romney was clinging to a perilously thin lead yesterday in Iowa, which kicks off the Republican nominating process with caucus voting tomorrow, but possibly only by virtue of the conservatives in the state dividing over which of his rivals they would rather see challenge President Barack Obama.
A final poll conducted by the Des Moines Register newspaper over four days last week showed the former Massachusetts governor winning 24 per cent of likely caucus votes while Ron Paul, the staunch libertarian beloved of many college-age males, took 22 per cent. That put them in a statistical dead heat.
But Rick Santorum, a hero among many social conservatives, was showing signs of a late spurt. While he registered 15 per cent over the four-day period, polling from the final two days going into the weekend saw him overtaking Paul and nipping at Romney's heels.
The race in Iowa, which sees Republicans assemble in school gyms, town halls and even private sitting rooms to tick the box of the candidate they like the most, has still not settled down, with a remarkable 41 per cent saying they are undecided, perhaps echoing a narrative familiar by now: while many know Mr Romney may have the best chance of toppling Mr Obama, they just can't warm to him.
"It may be Romney's to lose at this point," said John Stineman, an Iowa Republican strategist. "And it's a battle among the rest."