GOP hopefuls return to Iowa for frantic final week

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 27, 2011 

DES MOINES, Iowa — With Christmas out of the way, the battle for the Republican presidential nomination resumed with gusto Tuesday, a still-wide-open race meaning a frantic dash in the final week before Iowa kicks off the voting Jan. 3.

Candidates poured back into Iowa, with Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich all launching statewide bus tours, joining Rick Santorum, who'd returned Monday. Ron Paul is scheduled to arrive Wednesday. The candidates, all Christians, had suspended campaigning over the Christmas weekend.

Ads also retuned to Iowa TV channels, restarting an air war that's cost an estimated $10 million, much of it spent on attacking onetime front-runner Gingrich as a flip-flopper who once backed liberal causes and a Washington insider who cashed in after leaving public office.

As they raced toward the voting, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney signaled confidence that he'll eventually win the nomination even if he doesn't win Iowa. Gingrich awoke to another challenge, with a report that he'd praised Romney's Massachusetts health care law, which is deeply unpopular with conservatives.

Before arriving in Iowa on Tuesday evening, Romney swung through his stronghold of New Hampshire, which holds its primary a week after Iowa's precinct caucuses.

"I'm not exactly sure how all this is going to work, but I think I'm going to get the nomination if we do our job right," he said in New Hampshire.

Romney is expected to attend events in Iowa at least through Friday — his campaign wouldn't release his plans beyond that — but he worked to lower expectations in the state he wooed and lost in 2008.

"I'd like to win in every state, but I'm really not going to get into the expectations business," he said after a campaign stop later Tuesday. "What I know I have to do is get about 1,150 delegates and that's going to take time in a lot of states, and I hope to get off to a good start."

Romney poked fun at Gingrich for failing to qualify for the primary ballot in Virginia and for likening the setback to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

"I think it's more like Lucille Ball and the chocolate factory," Romney said, referring to the classic 1952 sitcom scene in which Ball's character can't keep up with a candy assembly line.

"I mean, you got to get it organized," he added at a stop in Portsmouth, N.H.

Gingrich faced more potential bad news with a Wall Street Journal report that his consulting company had published a newsletter in 2006 lauding Romney's health care law, calling it "the most interesting effort to solve the uninsured problem in America today."

The state law includes a mandate that people buy insurance, and many Republicans now revile it as a model for the national law that President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats pushed through last year.

All of it pointed to a wide-open finish, with Paul also among the top-tier candidates, and Bachmann, Perry and Santorum working overtime for a last-minute surge that would propel them into the top three finishers.

"It's just as fluid now as it's been for weeks," said Timothy Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa.

He said Gingrich was fading, "hit real hard here by negative ads."

The candidates have spent an estimated $10 million this month in ads in the state. Perry reportedly has spent $2.86 million, followed closely by Restore Our Future, an independent group that's promoting Romney.

Paul will return to the campaign trail facing new questions, with reports that a newsletter he published had regularly printed racist and anti-Semitic remarks. Paul says he didn't know what was in the newsletters.

Still, Paul supporters continued to stream into the state. One flight Tuesday from Chicago included several college-aged men carrying Paul posters.

Santorum looked for a boost from the state's sizable evangelical Christian community.

"Enthusiasm and organization usually equal turnout," said Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics and international relations at Drake University in Des Moines. "And their people are enthusiastic."

(Lightman reported from Washington.)

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