January 03, 2012

Campaigning over, Iowa Republicans prepare to caucus

After withstanding months of a turbulent campaign season, Republican voters on Tuesday will finally start weighing in on who deserves the GOP presidential nomination.
Voters in Iowa will start assemble at 7 p.m. CT to engage in the Republican caucuses -- the first presidential nominating contest in the nation.

Technically speaking, the caucuses are largely symbolic -- the results will represent the viewpoints of just a fraction of the American population. Iowa will send just 28 delegates to the Republican National Convention in Florida, where a candidate will need the support of at least 1,143 to win the presidential nomination. On top of all that, the delegates aren't officially chosen on caucus night -- they're selected at the state convention in June.
That said, the caucuses have the potential to change the race. A strong showing from Mitt Romney could solidify the notion that the former Massachusetts governor is the inevitable nominee. Or former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum could gain the momentum to expand his appeal beyond Christian conservatives, siphoning support from other candidates.
And a poor showing could cast serious doubts about how much longer Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann or Texas Gov. Rick Perry can last, providing new pools of potential supporters to other not-Romney candidates.

Polls leading up to caucus night show the race for the nomination as tight as ever in the Hawkeye state. The last Des Moines Register poll, for instance -- conducted Dec. 27-30 -- showed Romney leading with 24 percent of the vote of likely caucus-goers. Rep. Ron Paul was close behind at 22 percent with Santorum surging to 15 percent. Other polls have had similar results.
In both Iowa and nationwide polls, Romney has maintained the support of 20 percent to 30 percent of GOP voters. He watched as his GOP rivals took turns challenging him in the polls, only to lose momentum weeks later. One candidate -- Herman Cain -- dropped out in early December, collapsing under the burden of new scrutiny brought on by his rise in popularity.
Romney's strong standing in Iowa defies the low expectations he set early in the year by paying the state little attention, but he has campaigned there vigorously in the past week. If he can win Iowa, Romney will have greater momentum -- but also higher expectations to meet -- in New Hampshire, where he already holds a double-digit lead.

No non-incumbent Republican has ever won the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, which falls this year on January 10, so back-to-back victories would be a significant symbolic score for Romney. After finishing second in Iowa four years ago, Romney is prepared for a drawn out nonimating contest with strong organizations in several states this year, but he's also looking ahead to the general election.
But while Romney has been busy campaigning against President Obama, Santorum has gained momentum in Iowa. The former senator is hoping for a surprise victory in Iowa, where the socially conservative electorate makes him a natural fit.
Paul, meanwhile, has attracted an ardent base of supporters with his libertarian views and has the organization to carry his campaign beyond Iowa.
In the final days of the campaign, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, have tried to convince Iowa voters they neither Paul nor Santorum are electable. 

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