Candidates face off in first battle for Republican ticket

A high turnout is predicted for the Republicans’ crucial Iowa caucus today, which looks set to go to Mitt Romney, Ron Paul or Rick Santorum in their quest for the US presidency.

Republicans were predicting a bigger turnout than 2008 in the Iowa caucuses as candidates scrambled across the state on Monday in a final effort to squeeze out those extra, potentially vital votes.

The six candidates battling in Iowa scheduled 19 campaign events on Monday, finishing with what they hoped would be crowded late-night rallies.

But most of the work that matters is now in the hands of volunteers, essential to ensure that supporters turn out for the caucuses, scheduled to begin about 7pm on Tuesday.

Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum claim to have strong volunteer networks in place to get the vote out. Other candidates have kept such campaign details secret.

Polls suggest the candidates go into the final phase with the outcome apparently in a dead heat, with the eventual winner one of three: Mitt Romney, Paul or Santorum, who is enjoying a final surge. There are also a sizeable number of voters who say they have yet to make up their minds.

Republicans expect turnout to exceed the 120 000 who came out to vote in 2008. The party prediction is based on an increase in the number of party registrations but also on the fact that the Iowa straw poll in August attracted the second highest turnout since it began in 1979. A reasonable weather forecast for tomorrow night — cold, breezy but dry – may also help, compared with snowy conditions in 2008.

Romney, who has a closing rally in Clive on Monday night, has no events scheduled for Tuesday, but Michele Bachmann, Paul and Newt Gingrich are planning to remain on the campaign trail until early afternoon on Tuesday.

Romney, the favourite to win based on poll results, told CBS he believes he will finish in the top three in the caucuses and that will provide him with a boost for next week’s New Hampshire primary and the contests beyond.

“I’ve seen polls in the past, and I know it’s very difficult to predict who will actually caucus in Iowa, but I think I’m getting a real strong sendoff. I’m pretty encouraged,” he said.

A second place for Romney would probably have been a good result for him a week ago, given the antipathy towards him expressed by many Iowan Republicans. But his frontrunner status in the polls mean that anything other than first place may now be viewed as a setback.

Santorum also predicted a top-three finish on the back of the week-long surge that has propelled him from the back of the crowd. “We’ve raised more money in the last few days than we have in the last few months,” Santorum said.

Paul, quirky as ever, taking a two-day break at home in Texas while others slogged it out on the campaign trail, returned to action on Monday, attracting hundreds to what he described as a whistlestop event in the centre of Des Moines.

He won loud applause when he criticised Barack Obama for signing legislation at the weekend that will allow the military to detain indefinitely American citizens suspected of terrorism. Paul regards this as a major infringement of liberty and the crowd’s response demonstrated that they agreed with him.

Gingrich, who only a few weeks ago was front-runner in the polls but is now running behind the pack, mainly as a result of a sustained advertising campaign against him, acknowledged reality when he admitted: “I don’t think I am going to win.”

About 1 700 precincts hold caucuses, but some smaller precincts combine, making the actual number lower. Some of the candidates have struggled to find enough precinct captains to get their voters out but Paul’s campaign has released details of its network, saying it has 1 480 precinct captains. Perry, who has had less time to organise, having come later to the campaign, claims to have 1 500 precinct captains, in addition to 500 out-of-state volunteers, many of them from his home state of Texas. Santorum, who has devoted himself to campaigning in Iowa, claims to have more than 1 000.

Romney’s campaign has not released figures but he has a strong, well-financed organisation in place and is almost certain to have ensured that he has precinct captains in place. —

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