Romney Leads in Iowa Poll as Santorum Gains Before State Caucus

Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum
Newt Gingrich, former U.S. Speaker of the House, left, listens as Rick Santorum, former U.S. Senator, speaks during a presidential debate sponsored by Bloomberg and The Washington Post held at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, on Oct. 11, 2011. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum led the most closely followed poll in Iowa as rivals in the state’s Jan. 3 caucuses pushed their policies on Sunday talk shows.

The Iowa Poll by the Des Moines Register newspaper, released late yesterday, showed Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, with the support of 24 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers. Paul, a Texas congressman, had the backing of 22 percent. Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, won 15 percent after a surge in the final two days of sampling.

“It is a wide open race,” said Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, a Republican, during an interview on “Fox News Sunday.” “Any of the candidates potentially could win here.”

Santorum, Paul, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann and Texas Governor Rick Perry each argued in television interviews today that the momentum was in their favor. Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich haven’t yet appeared today in interviews, as Romney’s poll numbers rose and Gingrich’s fell.

Romney’s support in the Iowa Poll is up from 16 percent when it was last taken a month ago. Gingrich, who led in the poll a month ago, registered at 12 percent in the latest survey. Perry was backed by 11 percent of likely caucus-goers. And Bachman won 7 percent.

More Time

Santorum, who has spent more time in Iowa than any of the Republican candidates, is seeing the benefits of his labor. If the final two days of the Iowa Poll are considered separately, Santorum rises to second place, with 21 percent, pushing Paul to third, at 18 percent. Romney remains steady at 24 percent.

The Dec. 27-30 survey of 602 likely Republican caucus participants had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. The margin of error for the last two days alone jumps to 5.6 percentage points.

The final polling showed “a whole new ballgame for Rick Santorum,” said J. Ann Selzer, president of West Des Moines-based Selzer & Co., which conducted the Register’s poll.

“If he continues on this trajectory, he can win,” she said. “He benefits from Romney holding steady -- not getting stronger with increased time in the state, and from a rather dramatic slide by Ron Paul.”

The swing for Santorum was unusually strong just ahead of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, Selzer said.

‘Dramatic’ Swing

“I do not remember as dramatic a swing as these four days of polling reveal,” she said of her work with caucus polls.

Santorum, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” today, said he has long told people his momentum would shift as Iowans spent more time analyzing the candidates.

“My surge is going to come on Jan. 3 after the people of Iowa do what they do,” Santorum said.

Santorum said he would be best equipped to deal with Iran, threatening air strikes unless the country dismantled its nuclear facilities or opened them up to inspectors.

“You can’t go out and say this is what I’m for and then do nothing,” he said. “You become a paper tiger and people don’t respect our country.”

Santorum said he would support certain exceptions to a ban on abortion as long as the resulting laws were more restrictive than the status quo.

“I’ll support laws that move the ball forward,” he said.

Winning Converts

Bachmann, in interviews on ABC’s “This Week” and “Fox News Sunday,” argued that she’s won “thousands” of converts in recent days with a tour of Iowa’s 99 counties. She, Perry and Santorum all said they have what it takes to appeal to the most socially conservative Republican voters.

“I’m the strongest core conservative in this race,” Bachmann said on “This Week.” Perry argued on Fox that he would appeal to people looking for someone who’s an “outsider” that doesn’t hail from Washington or Wall Street.

The poll shows the fluidity that remains ahead of the caucuses, with 41 percent of survey participants saying they could still change their minds.

“If this is the Super Bowl, then we just saw the pre-game show,” Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said of the poll. “But everyone knows the real action happens after kickoff.”

All of the candidates competing in Iowa will be back in the state on the campaign trail today, with the exception of Paul, who is taking the New Year’s holiday weekend off.

Taking on Obama

During an interview today on CNN’s “State of the Union” program, Paul dismissed rival criticism that he could not be elected in a general election against President Barack Obama.

“I was elected 12 times once people got to know me in my own congressional district,” he said. “I think that might be propaganda more than anything else.”

Suggestions that his libertarian views are out the mainstream are a “gross distortion,” Paul said.

“Why are the crowds getting bigger and bigger?” he said. “I’m pretty mainstream.”

Paul said he has no plans to run as a third-party candidate, if he doesn’t get the Republican nomination.

“We’re doing very, very well,” he said. “On Tuesday, we’re going to find out a lot more about the future of this election.”

Paul predicted he would finish first or second in Iowa.

“We’re pretty optimistic about getting our people out,” he said. “I doubt if I will come in third or fourth.”

Defending Positions

On Fox News, Paul defended his past comments criticizing sexual harassment laws, arguing that people should quit their jobs if something like a joke makes them uncomfortable. Current laws cover any violence in the workplace, he said.

“You have to get a better definition of sexual harassment,” Paul said.

Paul also denied that his campaign, or anyone connected to it, paid Bachmann’s former state chairman to defect to his side.

Romney today picked up the endorsement of the Quad City Times newspaper in eastern Iowa.

The final Iowa Poll before the caucuses has a strong track record for reflecting the likely winner.

In 2008, the last poll before the caucuses showed Mike Huckabee at 32 percent and Romney at 26 percent. The former Arkansas governor finished with 34 percent of the vote and Romney got 25 percent.

On the Democratic side in 2008, the poll showed then Senator Barack Obama at 32 percent. He won with 37.6 percent of the vote, starting him on his way toward the presidency.

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