After a yearlong contest marked by the rise and fall of a series of candidates, the Republican presidential contenders competing in Iowa will flood corn fields and college towns with bus tours, television ads and phone calls in the final week of the U.S.’s first primary-election campaign.
The rush to reach voters on the ground marks a departure for a field largely unified by its attempts to campaign from a distance. Rather than reaching voters at town halls and pizza parlors across rural Iowa, the candidates have gotten their messages out through more than a dozen televised debates, nationally broadcast media interviews, and a multimillion-dollar ad war.
Those who have spent time doing traditional retail politicking have struggled to get traction in the polls.
“We still believe that the caucuses are a little different kettle of fish then most other elections,” former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum told reporters yesterday, after an afternoon shooting pheasants with local politicians in Adel.
The outcome of the Jan. 3 caucuses is expected to narrow what remains a volatile race. Newt Gingrich has lost ground to Representative Ron Paul of Texas, making the former U.S. House speaker the latest candidate to surge in the polls only to see his ratings drop.
Both are competing against former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. While Romney has won the backing of many party leaders, he has failed to gain a majority of rank-and-file primary voters.
Polls show many Iowans remain undecided, and a majority are open to changing their minds before next week’s caucuses. The campaigns want to win over these uncommitted voters, while identifying precinct captains to wrangle supporters to the 1,774 Republican caucuses that will be held across the state.
Iowa voters have a mixed track record for picking their party’s nominee. In 2008, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee unified social conservatives to win an upset victory over Romney, who poured $10 million into the state. Huckabee’s candidacy quickly faded after Arizona Senator John McCain, the eventual nominee, won the New Hampshire primary.
This year, Romney has devoted less energy to Iowa, attempting to lower expectations by spending little time there and hiring only a handful of staff members.
Romney Steps In
Now, with polls finding him in a stronger position, Romney plans to intensify his presence in the state this week. He has been addressing supporters in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida on conference calls, and his campaign released an ad highlighting his record as a “conservative businessman.”
“The experience of balancing budgets is desperately needed in Washington, and I will take it there,” he says in the ad.
Today, he will deliver a speech in Davenport, Iowa --billed as his final argument to voters -- before setting out on a three-day bus tour across the state.
Gingrich, too, is working to make up for lost time in Iowa. He has fallen in the polls after facing weeks of attacks from other candidates questioning his conservative record. While he held a double-digit lead over Paul and Romney in a CBS-New York Times poll conducted Nov. 30-Dec. 5, he ranked second behind Paul in an Iowa State University/Gazette/KCRG poll taken Dec. 8-18.
Last week, he began lowering expectations for his performance in the Iowa caucuses, telling supporters in Virginia that finishing in the top three or four would still position him to be the Republican nominee.
Gingrich has struggled to build a campaign organization to sustain his rise in the polls and deflect attacks. After spending much of the summer focused on getting his message out through social media, Gingrich’s nine-person Iowa staff is working to set up the standard infrastructure to build support in the state.
As of last week, Gingrich had spent just one-fifth of the amount of money on advertising promoting his candidacy as his opponents and their backers had spent attacking him and his record, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG, a New York-based company that tracks the expenditures.
Restore Our Future, a political action committee supporting Romney, has spent about $670,000 on commercials criticizing Gingrich as someone with “a ton of baggage,” and Paul has spent about $50,000 on spots charging the former speaker with “serial hypocrisy.”
Seeking to regain ground, Gingrich is scheduled to embark today on an eight-day, 40-city tour of the state. He is expected to compare his economic proposal with that of President Ronald Reagan.
He aims to start a fresh assault on Romney, with plans to challenge the former private equity manager on his economic credentials. Gingrich will draw a contrast between his tax plan and Romney’s proposal, arguing that he would make deeper cuts to corporate and capital gains taxes. His plan also offers taxpayers the option of filing at a flat 15 percent rate, while Romney’s retains the current graduated income tax system.
Gingrich may have to explain a column that appeared five years ago under his name praising the health-care law Romney championed while governor of Massachusetts -- a measure seen as the model for the national legislation that was enacted last year and that Republicans, including all the presidential candidates, have vowed to dismantle. The Wall Street Journal reported today that in April 2006, a newsletter published by the Center for Health Transformation, a consulting firm Gingrich headed, included a “Newt’s Notes” column praising the Massachusetts law as having “tremendous potential to effect major change in the American health care system.”
“We agree entirely with Governor Romney and Massachusetts legislators that our goal should be 100% insurance coverage for all Americans,” the column said.
A Gingrich spokesman, R.C. Hammond, told the Journal that Gingrich didn’t write that column himself. The column, which is no longer available online, was found using a search engine that has archives of old, and even deleted, web pages, the Journal said.
Challenge from Paul
Both Gingrich and Romney face a growing challenge from Paul, whose fundraising strength has helped his campaign after a failed 2008 run. Paul will rally supporters this week in a series of town hall meetings across the state.
The remainder of those competing in Iowa -- Texas Governor Rick Perry, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Santorum -- are struggling to break out of the single digits.
All three tout their strong ties to evangelical Christians and opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage. That community plays a crucial role in the caucuses: In 2008, 60 percent of Republicans who attended the caucuses described themselves to pollsters as born-again or evangelical Christians.
So far, those voters haven’t coalesced around a candidate.
Bidding for social conservative support, Perry has shifted from focusing on his economic record in Texas to his religion, proclaiming himself “not ashamed to talk about my faith” in an ad. He plans to resume his three-week bus tour today.
Bachmann, who rose in the polls after winning the Iowa Straw Poll in August, is aiming to visit all 99 Iowa counties before the caucuses.
Questions About Endorsement
Even an endorsement of Santorum by Bob Vander Plaats, an influential social conservative in the state, has been shadowed by questions over whether the Christian leader had sought a contribution before giving his endorsement.
Lacking the money to fund a major advertising campaign, Santorum has made hundreds of campaign appearances in the state. Still, he trails in the polls.
Standing in a bright orange hunting jacket outside Doc’s Hunt Club yesterday, he told reporters that he expects his work will pay off on caucus night.
“I’m someone who’s run a very strong steady campaign and done it the way the people of Iowa want to see a campaign run,” he said.