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Caucus countdown

Politics | GOP hopefuls make their final plea to voters before Tuesday's showdown in Iowa

MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa-Michele Bachmann filled two rooms at Legends Grill on her ambitious 99-county, 10-day swing through the state. Just two hours later, Rick Perry also rolled through Marshalltown for a crowded town hall at Fisher Community Center.

That's Iowa, five days before a caucus on Tuesday that could make or break several Republican presidential campaigns. Six GOP hopefuls are making their last plea here as time runs out on 2011. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, even ran across Newt Gingrich pulled over in rural northwest Iowa for a bus repair, and they chatted by the roadside in the balmy 40-degree weather. "That's the way it is in this state," King said. "You drive down the road and there's a presidential candidate."

The latest polls-sometimes shifting in just days-show Mitt Romney and Ron Paul still out front, Rick Santorum and Perry moving up, and Gingrich and Bachmann fighting for traction. "It's been surprising that so many candidates could make their way to the top of the hill, and how temporary that has been for all of them," said King.

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Santorum's surge, suddenly in third place in a new Rasmussen poll, is reshaping the unpredictable Iowa caucus yet again. Ignored for months as he routinely polled in sixth place, Santorum is riding fresh media attention and late endorsements (see "Surprise selection," Dec. 20). While at the back of the pack, he never faced the battering of a frontrunner, and it may now be too late for any of his rivals to slow his momentum before the caucus. Perry took notice in Marshalltown, naming one other candidate in his usual remarks: a brief jab that Santorum was a "prolific earmarker" in his time in the U.S. Senate.

Santorum was the first candidate to visit all 99 Iowa counties, patiently trying to build a statewide network of volunteers to speak for him at most of the 1,774 precincts on caucus night. King said the campaigns with depth of organization could gain by swaying undecided likely caucus-goers and those with "soft support" inside the room on Tuesday. Though publicly neutral, King went hunting with Santorum a few days ago, and the timing of that move will be viewed by some as implied support.

Another storyline developed Thursday after Bachmann's Iowa chairman Kent Sorensen jumped to the Paul campaign. Bachmann accused Sorensen of leaving for a pay-off. The initial statement from the Paul campaign did not deny compensation but added that the move was not "financially motivated." Instead, Paul's campaign said Sorensen, an Iowa state senator, made the choice to stand with local supporters who have stood with him. Late in the day, Sorensen released a new statement insisting he did not profit from the move.

Bachmann, once surging, has lacked the funds to compete with television advertising, but showed in Marshalltown that she could still work a room with a brief speech that said the nation needs another "Iron Lady" who can fight for conservative principles in the mold of Britain's Margaret Thatcher. Tamara Scott, who heads the Iowa chapter of Concerned Women for America, warmed up the crowd for Bachmann. "Her electability is our responsibility," Scott said.

Perry, briefly the frontrunner, is also looking for a significant comeback. His constant TV ads have finally caused an uptick in Iowa polls during the final week, putting him in fourth in the Real Clear Politics polling average. Rasmussen also has him tied with Gingrich in fourth, rising to 13 percent. Perry is banking on enough momentum from Iowa to take his message on to other early primary states, particularly to South Carolina.

Romney, who once downplayed Iowa to manage expectations, is now running strongly in the state that gave his 2008 campaign a sluggish second-place start. The divided field gives him a chance for a plurality win in Iowa, and the Romney campaign's strength in New Hampshire gives him a rare opportunity to triumph in both states.

Paul has a strong organization but is known for libertarian beliefs, including military cutbacks, that are at loggerheads with the rest of the field. He is courting Christian conservatives and routinely sends out statements from pastors who support him. Media reports on his controversial newsletters have not yet caused a dip in his support here.

Gingrich, a recent frontrunner, almost had perfect timing in his surge to the top, but left a window of time for his rivals to exploit. Just weeks before the caucus, Gingrich hoping to claim the mantle of the Romney alternative, had an apparent path to the nomination beginning with expected strong showings in Iowa and South Carolina. But his surge gave his rivals time to attack and they hammered at his record unchecked. Without the campaign funds to compete adequately on the airwaves, Gingrich's numbers are slipping. Several polls still place him in third, and Rasmussen now shows that Santorum has passed him and Perry has drawn even.

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