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Iowa keeps America guessing on GOP picks

| Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011

The only thing certain about Iowa's Republican presidential caucus is that, one month out, everything is uncertain.

Experts predict an estimated 110,000 people likely will eliminate at least three of the seven GOP hopefuls when they vote in Iowa on Jan. 3.

Herman Cain bowed out of the race on Saturday, saying he wanted to avoid news coverage hurtful to his family.

Cain's announcement came five days after an Atlanta-area woman claimed they had an affair, which followed several allegations of sexual harassment from women in his past. Cain has denied all the allegations.

Analysts predicted that a caucus minus Cain would benefit former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Caucus-goers will meet in 1,784 precincts in schools, churches, town halls and homes to talk party business and then cast secret presidential preference ballots.

Who wins this first state contest is anybody's guess.

"Because of the relatively small numbers of people involved in the caucus -- and the ability of surrogates to sway caucus-goer opinion in open debate -- it is possible for the best organized candidate to outperform their pre-caucus polling numbers by significant amounts," said Curt Nichols, a political scientist from Baylor University in Texas.

Indeed, as the candidates prepare for the nation's first primary in New Hampshire on Jan. 10 and the first chance for southerners to vote in South Carolina on Jan. 21, statewide polling in Iowa shows a race in flux, said Dave Peterson, a political science professor at Iowa State University.

"Voters are still in the process of making up their minds," he said.

In the lead, for now: Gingrich, enjoying a popularity surge; Romney, who has consistently stayed at the top of polls; and Texas Congressman Ron Paul, whose Libertarian bent appeals to rural Iowans' distrust of big government.

But no one's counting out second-tier candidates, including former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is campaigning heavily in Iowa and might get help from having big names in the party talk about him, such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and conservative talk show host Glenn Beck.

Romney waited until November to open a campaign office in Iowa. He skipped the Ames Straw Poll in August, which Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann won, but now is running a TV ad that projects Romney as an accomplished businessman who could prop up the lagging economy.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Tea Party favorite, will boost Romney's campaign when he visits Iowa on Wednesday to speak at a GOP dinner, Romney's spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said.

The Gingrich campaign recently opened its Iowa office as well, and is telling people that Gingrich is "the only candidate who has the fundamentals to undo the gridlock in Washington," spokesman R.C. Hammond said.

"Our strategy isn't about who has the most staff or offices, or has the most supporters; this is about the candidate who can win," Hammond said.

Traditionally, spending time and money in Iowa pays off -- but this is far from a typical campaign year, strategists say.

Among the major GOP candidates, only Santorum approached Iowa with a time-honored "barnstorm" race. He moved his family there for four weeks in summer, has visited all 99 counties, courted the important evangelical vote; and spends time shaking hands and eating food from street vendors at public functions.

Yet, Santorum hasn't risen in statewide polls. He told the Trib he didn't expect to and believes his popularity will rise when it counts: "in the last weeks of the campaign."

"We understood that we would not get the media attention or stand out in the debates," Santorum said. "The plan has been to peak at the end and not worry about what happens before that."

Villanova University political science professor Lara Brown predicts Romney will win in Iowa and Paul will place third. Second-place is harder to predict, she said, but, "I tend to think it is going to be Gingrich."

Conservatives likely will split their vote, Brown said. Iowa's Republicans, unlike Democrats, don't require candidates to achieve a certain threshold of support in order to remain contenders, so voters don't have to strategically choose someone perceived as most electable, she said.

"Romney could win the caucus with as little as 25 percent of the vote, if we assume that Newt Gingrich gets 20 percent," Brown said. And if Paul comes in third, she said, "Let's face it, if you finish behind Paul, you're not going to be considered a viable candidate."

Mark Hudson, 34, an attorney in Cedar Rapids, said he spoke with Bachmann and Gingrich while trying to decide whom to support. He settled upon Romney. "Ultimately, it was his experience as a private businessman that convinced me that he is the right man at the right time to take the country forward," Hudson said.

Iowans can be quirky and fickle, said Joel Goldstein, a presidential historian at Saint Louis University in Missouri. They've "launched and buried some of the same candidates," he said. The state, for example, gave George H.W. Bush a temporary boost against Ronald Reagan in 1980, but handed him an embarrassing defeat as sitting vice president in 1988.

A caucus provides well-financed candidates a chance to utilize superior organizational efforts, Nichols said.

"If Romney pulls off an upset victory or strong second-place showing in the Iowa caucus, and then wins convincingly in the New Hampshire state primary the next week, the narrative may be established that he is unstoppable," he said.

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