Republican Presidential Candidates Make Final Push in Iowa Before Caucuses

Mitt Romney vied with Rick Santorum and Ron Paul for the top spot in tonight’s Iowa (BEESIA) caucuses in their last full day of campaigning, while their rivals faced the possibility that their campaigns could come to an abrupt end.

The six candidates competing in the state raced past barren cornfields to greet voters at coffee shops and cafes as they made their final pitches in what remains a fluid race.

“It’s good to be among the clump at the top,” Romney said on Fox News today. “I’m not sure exactly what will happen in terms of one, two and three, but I think all three of us will come out with a big boost.”

Newt Gingrich, during a CBS interview today, said “yes” when asked if he was calling Romney a liar when it comes to talking to voters on matters as varied as fundraising and policy positions.

“He ought to be candid, I don’t think he’s being candid,” the former U.S. House speaker said. “Do you really want a Massachusetts moderate, who won’t level with you, to run against Barack Obama, who frankly will just tear him apart?”

Responding on Fox, Romney acted as if he was willing to ignore the attack.

“I understand Newt must be very angry and I don’t exactly understand why, but, look, I wish him well,” he said. “It’s a long road ahead. He’s a good guy.”

‘Tsunami of Negativity’

In an interview this morning on CNN, Gingrich blamed his recent drop in polls on a “tsunami of negativity” created by millions of dollars in negative advertising against him. The ads have been paid for by a political action committee backing Romney, as well as by Paul’s campaign.

“Well, actually, I thought the Ron Paul ads were by far the most effective in pointing out the speaker’s background,” Romney said on Fox. “The super-PAC that happens to endorse me has put some ads out. You know, I can’t control those, as you know. We’re not allowed to have coordination between the campaign and these independent PACs.”

Romney, 64, said Gingrich has had “just as much difficulty” in polls in New Hampshire, where negative advertising has not yet become prominent. He said he’s ready for the more aggressive campaign approach Gingrich has promised.

“If the speaker decides to come after me, why, that’s part of the process,” Romney said on Fox. “If I can’t handle this kind of attack, why, how in the world would I handle the attack that’s going to come from President Obama?”

‘We Could Win’

Gingrich contended that he is regaining his footing as the voting nears.

“I think it’s going to be a very big turnout tonight,” he said on CNN. “I think we could win.”

That was a reversal of what he said a day earlier when he told reporters in Independence, Iowa: “I don’t think I’m going to win.”

Romney faces a growing challenge from Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who is the latest candidate to gain popularity in polls.

Santorum is urging voters not to settle for someone who doesn’t share their beliefs on such issues as ending abortions and cutting government spending just because they think that person can beat Obama this year.

“Ten days ago, the polls said I was going to finish last,” he told a crowd gathered in the lobby of a hotel in Perry, Iowa. “Polls change; convictions shouldn’t. And that’s what I bring to the equation.”

Alternative to Romney

Republican voters have spent much of the past year searching for a more fiscally and socially conservative alternative to Romney, who has been unable to break a ceiling of roughly 25 percent support in most surveys. Yet after a year characterized by the rapid rise and fall of a number of candidates, none has been able to maintain a lead over the former Massachusetts governor.

As they traveled across Iowa with Romney, his supporters argued that he is the best positioned to take on Obama in the general election.

“He’s somebody that’s electable, that can win this election in 2012,” U.S. Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, told voters gathered in the warehouse of a paper company in Dubuque yesterday.

Romney has focused on driving turnout in eastern Iowa, where he gained strong backing during his failed 2008 bid.

A Long Race

While exuding a new sense of confidence, Romney’s strategists say they are prepared for a long race to capture the nomination.

“You’re going to see us contesting everywhere,” said campaign strategist Eric Fehrnstrom in Davenport. “We have an organization that’s national in scope.”

As the candidates crammed in event after event across the state yesterday, campaign staffers called potential supporters and urged them to attend tonight’s meetings and cast their votes. A barrage of ads continued on local television, with the candidates touting their records and their well-funded outside groups criticizing their opponents. The candidates and their affiliated outside groups have spent $5.8 million on advertising in the state, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG; of that, $3.7 million has gone for negative ads.

Prospective caucus-goers saw three negative ads for every two positive ones, according to the latest CMAG data available before the caucuses.

New Bachmann Ad

U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who has fallen in the polls since winning the Iowa Straw Poll in August, released a new television ad yesterday. It describes her as a “conservative fighter” and plays up her ties to Iowa, where she was born.

Texas Governor Rick Perry also made what could be his last stand in the race, holding three events yesterday and wrapping up the day in the central Iowa town that bears his name: Perry.

The Iowa Poll by the Des Moines Register newspaper, released Dec. 31, showed Romney with the support of 24 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers. Paul had 22 percent and Santorum 15 percent after a surge in the final two days of sampling.

Santorum’s late gain has made him the latest target for his rivals.

During a campaign stop in Boone, Santorum accused Paul of using automated telephone calls to falsely accuse him of not supporting the Second Amendment, which ensures the right to bear arms, and talked about his membership in the National Rifle Association.

Mourning His Son

Santorum also faced a question from an audience member in Newton asking about an assertion yesterday on Fox News by Alan Colmes that Santorum’s manner of mourning the 1996 death of his son, who was born prematurely, might hurt him with voters.

Santorum -- joined by his wife, who was visibly upset by the question -- choked back emotion as he told a packed pizza restaurant about losing the child about two hours after his birth.

“We brought him home so our children could see him,” he said.

Paul’s campaign is being fueled by a cadre of well- organized, devoted supporters drawn to his libertarian, pro- state rights positions.

As he campaigned across Iowa, Paul was joined by his son, U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a favorite of Tea Party activists. The two crossed the state, traveling almost 400 miles from the Missouri to Mississippi rivers on a five-county tour.

‘Very Big Message’

In Des Moines yesterday, the congressman from Texas stuck to the themes that have forged the core of his support -- criticizing the Federal Reserve and accusing the government of meddling in the “internal affairs” of other countries.

The Iowa caucus results, Paul said, might be “small in numbers” but will “send a very big message.”

Many voters said they are most interested in finding the candidate with the best chance of beating Obama.

The issue of electability against Obama is “key,” said Jon Dunwell, 45, an undecided voter who went to a town meeting in Newton yesterday to hear Santorum one more time.

“I’m not just voting for the candidate that has the conservative views that I like,” he said. “It’s always the full package.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in Washington at llerer@bloomberg.net; John McCormick in Chicago at jmccormick16@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.