Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are in a dead heat as the top choices for Iowans likely to attend the Jan. 3 Republican presidential caucuses.
A Bloomberg News poll shows Cain at 20 percent, Paul at 19 percent, Romney at 18 percent and Gingrich at 17 percent among the likely attendees with the caucuses that start the nominating contests seven weeks away.
Economic issues such as jobs, taxes and government spending are driving voter sentiment, rather than such social issues as abortion and gay marriage, the poll finds. Only about a quarter of likely caucus-goers say social or constitutional issues are more important to them, compared with 71 percent who say fiscal concerns.
The poll reflects the race’s fluidity, with 60 percent of respondents saying they still could be persuaded to back someone other than their top choice, and 10 percent undecided. Paul’s support is more solidified than his rivals, while Cain’s is softer. All of the major contenders have issue challenges to address.
“In Iowa, it’s long been a two-person race between Romney and someone else,” said J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., which conducted the poll for Bloomberg. “It is now a four-person race between Romney and three someone elses.”
No Exciting Choices
Poll participant Nate Warwick, 34, a machine operator at a packaging factory who lives in Story City, Iowa, is leaning toward Romney, primarily because he thinks he has the best chance of defeating President Barack Obama in 2012. Still, he’s not excited about his choices.
“There’s nobody out there who is really grabbing my attention, wholly,” he said. “I don’t think the Republican Party has a candidate that can beat Obama right now.”
Texas Governor Rick Perry and Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, who both once were strong contenders in polls of the Republican race, have seen support plummet. Perry, who is running ads in Iowa, gets 7 percent support in the Bloomberg survey; Bachmann, who won the Iowa Straw Poll in August, is backed by 5 percent.
Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who has spent the most time campaigning in Iowa, is at 3 percent. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., who isn’t competing in Iowa, is backed by 1 percent.
Polls in Iowa and New Hampshire -- site of the nation’s first primary -- are better barometers of the candidate field than national surveys because voters in those states are paying more attention and are aware of their early role in shaping the Republican race.
The Bloomberg Iowa poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points and was taken Nov. 10-12. Selzer & Co. is the same West Des Moines-based firm that conducts the Iowa Poll for the Des Moines Register newspaper.
The concern about economic issues comes even as Iowa is doing better than other states. Buoyed by rising farm commodity and land prices, its unemployment rate is 6 percent, below the national average of 9 percent.
Iowa’s economic improvement, as measured by the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States Index, was ranked the 10th best nationally between the fourth quarter of 2008 and the second quarter of 2011. The index uses housing, jobs, tax and stock price data for its rankings.
A Romney Opening
The focus on the economy presents an opening for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who in his campaign has spotlighted his background as a business executive. Romney has shown signs he may engage more directly in Iowa, a state where he invested $10 million in his 2008 presidential bid only to be rejected by social conservatives who rallied behind former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in that year’s caucuses.
“Iowa apparently is not looking for the next Huckabee this time around,” Selzer said.
Romney’s support consists of 41 percent who backed him in 2008, the survey found, which means “the majority of his support comes from newcomers to his camp,” Selzer said.
Among tax plans tested in the poll, a version that generally reflects Romney’s proposal to make former President George W. Bush’s tax cuts permanent and then work toward an overhaul wins the greatest support, backed by 32 percent. Cain’s so-called 9-9-9 plan is considered the best approach by 24 percent, while Perry’s flat-tax proposal is viewed that way by 14 percent.
Health Care Vulnerability
One area where Romney, 64, is vulnerable is his backing as governor support of a health insurance mandate in Massachusetts that is similar to the one in the federal health-care overhaul passed by Congress last year. More than half -- 58 percent -- of likely caucus participants said support of such a mandate would “rule out” their backing. In debates, Romney has said he would not impose a national mandate and would repeal the federal law.
There’s good news in the poll for Paul, 76, a Texas congressman who has attracted ardent supporters. Among likely caucus-goers who say their minds are made up, Paul leads with 32 percent, followed by Romney at 25 percent and Gingrich, a former House speaker, at 17 percent.
Among Paul supporters who backed him in the 2008 caucuses, 69 percent are still with him now.
Poll participant Sarah Stang, 78, a retired teacher who lives in Osage, Iowa, said she switched parties four years ago so she could vote for Paul.
“He doesn’t want to raise taxes on us middle- and low-income people,” she said, adding that she “loves” his challenges to the Federal Reserve. “They have way too much power. They should let the marketplace do what it’s supposed to,” she said.
Cain Support Dips
Support for Cain, 65, a former businessman who has been accused of sexually harassing four women in the 1990s, has dipped in Iowa by three percentage points since a similar survey done Oct. 23-26 by the Des Moines Register.
In the Bloomberg poll, 29 percent of likely caucus participants say they believe Cain’s denials, while 37 percent are waiting for more information. More than a quarter are skeptical of his answers to the harassment allegations or don’t believe him. Cain does better among men than women in the poll, 23 percent to 15 percent.
More than two-thirds of likely caucus participants say they wouldn’t rule out a candidate just because he had been accused of sexual harassment.
Gingrich’s campaign appears to be benefiting from Cain’s recent struggles.
The former Georgia congressman suffered an early political setback when more than a dozen of his staff members -- including his national co-chairman and campaign manager -- resigned in June following discord over strategy.
Poll participant Tom Anderson, 63, a retired union carpenter from Sigourney, Iowa, said he is backing Gingrich after deciding against Perry and Cain.
“He’s a smart guy and a problem-solver,” said Anderson.
Still, almost half of respondents say they would rule out a candidate who has been married three times and had an extramarital affair. Gingrich, 68, is in his third marriage. And in a March 2007 interview with a Christian group, Focus on the Family, he admitted to having had an extramarital affair.
Perry, 61, also has a stumbling block with caucus-goers. The poll found that 42 percent of likely Iowa caucus attendees said the Perry-signed Texas law allowing children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates would rule out their support. Even so, Perry, at 16 percent, and Paul, at 17 percent, ranked highest as candidates that “would do the most” to stop illegal immigration.
Although the top candidates are spending less time in Iowa than prior election cycles, likely caucus participants are hearing from them on a regular basis.
Almost a fifth say they have been contacted by six or more of the campaigns through e-mail, direct mail, telephone or by someone coming to their door during the past year. Forty-four percent say they have been contacted by three to five campaigns.
Paul’s campaign leads for voter contact, with about two thirds of respondents saying they’ve heard from his campaign, followed by 61 percent who said they’ve been reached by Bachmann’s campaign.
Bachmann, 55, isn’t getting much benefit from those interactions, converting to supporters just six percent, according to the poll. In contrast, Gingrich’s campaign has made direct contact with 29 percent of likely caucus participants, and converted a third of them to his cause.
-- With assistance from Ilan Kolet in Ottawa, Canada. Editor: Jeanne Cummings, Don Frederick