Tight race in Iowa kicks off White House campaign

Republican voters in Iowa open a long and gruelling 2012 presidential race on Tuesday, with polls showing Mitt Romney battling Ron Paul for a momentum-generating win in the party’s kick-off nominating contest.

Four other contenders, led by surging Rick Santorum, are vying to consolidate conservative support and break into the top tier in the state-by-state fight to pick a Republican challenger to President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in November’s election.

The stakes are high for each candidate, with Romney aiming for a win that could put him on a path toward clinching the nomination early and struggling rivals like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann fighting to keep their White House hopes alive.

Newt Gingrich, leading the race just weeks ago until he withered under an onslaught of attack ads from Paul and an outside group aligned with Romney, needs a strong showing to stop his slide in the polls and show he is capable of mounting a comeback.

The candidates spent the last days of the Iowa campaign crisscrossing the state by bus in a burst of face-to-face campaigning, and flooding airwaves and mailboxes with millions of dollars in advertisements.

But polls showed at least four of every 10 Iowa Republicans entered the final stretch undecided or willing to change their minds about a frequently shifting presidential race that has seen the rise and fall of several contenders.

“You are starting to see some separation, with Paul and Romney moving into the lead and a real battle developing for third,” said Tim Albrecht, an Iowa Republican strategist and aide to governor Terry Branstad.

“But there is still a lot of uncertainty. Caucus campaigns in Iowa are notoriously tough to poll, and no one is sure who is going to turn out,” he said.

Iowa’s nominating contest has a spotty track record of picking winners, but it has traditionally winnowed the presidential field of laggards and elevated surprise contenders, setting the stage for later contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and elsewhere.

The slide of Gingrich, the former House of Representatives speaker, has restored Romney as the race’s frontrunner and presumed nominee.

Polls show Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and former head of a private equity fund, performs best of all the Republicans in head-to-head matchups with Obama in a general election campaign certain to focus on the economy and high unemployment.

Knockout punch?
A win in Iowa for Romney, an infrequent visitor to the state until this week’s late push, combined with a January 10 victory in his stronghold of New Hampshire would be a one-two knockout punch that could help him clinch the nomination early.

Paul, a congressman from Texas with libertarian views, has a dedicated core of followers and the best campaign organisation in the state, but questions remain about whether he can expand his base of support and compete in states beyond Iowa.

The battle for the top spot among the four conservatives also could be critical. Republicans have struggled to settle on a conservative alternative to the more moderate Romney, who is distrusted by many on the right because of his past support for abortion rights and a state healthcare plan similar to Obama’s federal overhaul.

Santorum, a former US senator from Pennsylvania, has surged into third in recent polls, boosted by endorsements from prominent Iowa religious conservatives and the collapse of Gingrich.

But Santorum, who has run a shoestring campaign based on visiting all 99 Iowa counties and nurturing church-based support, would face a challenge in quickly raising enough money to compete in expensive later contests like Florida.

Perry, the Texas governor who has poured millions into television ads in Iowa, and Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota whose poll numbers plunged after a summer turn at the top, need a good Iowa finish to replenish their campaign accounts and stay alive until the January 21 contest in conservative South Carolina.

“Whoever comes in third will be competitive after Iowa, just given the conservative nature of Republican primary voters,” said Steve Grubbs, an Iowa Republican strategist who was state chairman for former candidate Herman Cain.

“Iowa has never been about picking the winner, it’s about winnowing the field,” he said. “If Iowa sends a moderate, a libertarian and a conservative on to fight it out in the rest of the states, it has done its job.”

Paul has remained near the top of Iowa polls despite a controversy over racially charged 1990s-era newsletters that appeared under his name. Iowa Republicans said the controversy has been slow to sink in with state voters preoccupied with the holiday season.

Much of Paul’s strength comes from his appeal to independents and disaffected Democrats who might not have participated in past caucuses and from college students who will be on holiday break, making estimates of his turnout difficult.

The nature of Iowa’s caucus system, which requires voters to head out on a cold winter night to join their neighbors at a community gathering spot for speeches and the balloting, also makes turnout unpredictable.

State activists agree, however, that Paul has Iowa’s best organisation, run by veteran members of the party’s central committee.

“For all the talk about his unconventional ways, Paul set up the most conventional approach to Iowa, with a lot of retail politics and a really strong organisation,” said Steve Deace, an Iowa talk radio host.

“He’s tilled the soil here, and when you till the soil you usually get a pretty good crop,” Deace said.

The caucuses begin at 7pm CST on Tuesday (1am on Wednesday GMT). Relatively mild weather for Iowa is predicted for Tuesday night’s caucuses, with temperatures slightly above freezing and no rain or snow expected. – Reuters

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

The journalist who was shot in cold blood

Ahmed Divela was one of Ghana’s most fearless investigative journalists. This edited excerpt about his killing is from Faces of Assassination

We cannot reform ourselves out of the times we are in

To end racism, we will have to change the structures from which it draws its mandate, and get rid of liberal and right-wing politicians who give it oxygen while we are being asphyxiated

After disastrous Zuma years, Ramaphosa must provide foreign policy clarity

For a country that is guided by ubuntu, South Africa has a record of embarrassing international blunders

What Bernie Sanders needs to learn from black voters in South Africa

Senator Sanders must explicitly demonstrate that a US government that can guarantee universal healthcare is the best path to building long-term black wealth

US presidential campaign 2020: The Democratic conundrum

As Super Tuesday looms, there are five candidates left in the Democratic race. But the party must ensure it selects someone who will be able to defeat incumbent Donald Trump

Valeria Luiselli tells stories to shame us

Over and over again she writes about the lost children picked up on the United States border

Subscribers only

The shame of 40 000 missing education certificates

Graduates are being left in the lurch by a higher education department that is simply unable to deliver the crucial certificates proving their qualifications - in some cases dating back to 1992

The living nightmare of environmental activists who protest mine expansion

Last week Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down as activists fight mining company Tendele’s expansions. Community members tell the M&G about the ‘kill lists’ and the dread they live with every day

More top stories

Fifteen witnesses for vice-chancellor probe

Sefako Makgatho University vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mbati had interdicted parliament last month from continuing with the inquiry

Constitutional Court ruling on restructuring dispute is good for employers

A judgment from the apex court empowers employers to change their workers’ contracts — without consultation

Audi Q8: Perfectly cool

The Audi Q8 is designed to be the king in the elite SUV class. But is it a victim of its own success?

KZN officials cash in on ‘danger pay for Covid-19’

Leadership failures at Umdoni local municipality in KwaZulu-Natal have caused a ‘very unhappy’ ANC PEC to fire the mayor and chief whip

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday