Santorum reflects on change in fortunes as his momentum builds

 

Across a wind-whipped Iowa, the runners in the Republican nomination race reached out for support one last time yesterday amid signs of continuing skittishness among voters who will gather in caucus meetings tonight to pick their favourite to take on Barack Obama in November's presidential election.

As the numbers come in tonight, the long preamble to the 2012 presidential contest will be over and the first blood will be spilled in the struggle for the Republican nod.

There are seven people running and often only three or four of them survive Iowa to fight the state-by-state primaries starting in New Hampshire next week. Polls show that as many as half of the likely caucus-goers are undecided with three candidates bunched at the front of the pack: Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum.

Mr Santorum, a former Senator from Pennsylvania, was staging a well-timed 11th-hour surge after languishing low in the polls for several months.

"I think we have the momentum here," a clearly energised Mr Santorum declared inside Polk City's Rising Sun Café, which was filled to bursting. Conceding his prospects were suddenly transformed, Mr Santorum said his campaign had "raised more money in the last few days than we have in the last few months".

The stakes tonight might be highest for those now relegated to the bottom half of the pack, including: the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; the Minnesota Senator and Tea Party-supporting Michele Bachmann; and the Texas Governor Rick Perry.

"He will come out of Iowa a credible candidate," Steve Forbes, the publisher and former presidential candidate, said of Mr Perry. Speaking to The Independent, Mr Forbes, who is advising the Governor, predicted that within a few weeks it will be a "two-man race between Romney and Perry".

Mr Paul, a libertarian, will still be in the race but "in his own universe", he said.

A final poll from Public Policy Polling gave a sense of the suspense likely today. It put Mr Paul at the top with 20 percent, Romney with 19 percent and Santorum at 18 percent.

Campaigning in Dubuque and Davenport, Mr Romney acknowledged the results will depend in part on who among the party faithful turn up at the caucus meetings to tick the box of their favourites. He is favoured by moderates while the other candidates will divvy up the support of the evangelical right.

"I've seen polls in the past, and I know it's very difficult to predict who will actually caucus in Iowa, but I think I'm getting a real strong send-off," Romney said. "I'm pretty encouraged."

As they pushed their way into the Rising Sun Café to hear Mr Santorum, many local voters, including the Mayor of Polk City, Gary Heuertz, admitted they were still unsure who to pick among the Republicans.

"Many people think there could be better people out there," Mr Heuertz said after Mr Santorum had finished speaking.

As for Mr Romney, he said: "I couldn't vote for him, because I think he's just a bit too... but I'm not going to go there".

When asked if "slick" was the word he had in mind, he nodded.

The polls: to close to call

Iowa's opinion polls have tightened in the final days of Republican campaigning. Figures released by the Des Moines Register placed Mitt Romney on 24 per cent, ahead of Ron Paul on 22 and Rick Santorum on 15. But those numbers came from polling conducted between Tuesday and Friday last week – the figures taken purely from the latter two days showed Santorum overtaking Paul by 21 per cent to 18, with Romney remaining on 24. And Public Policy Polling put the three men even closer together, giving Paul the lead on 20 per cent, ahead of Romney on 19 and Santorum on 18.

Rob Hastings

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