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Voter excitement scarce as Iowa caucus draws near

GOP field leaves many unsatisfied with 12 days to go

Ron Paul stumped in Fort Madison, Iowa. He is building a clear lead in the state.

Chris Carlson/AP

Ron Paul stumped in Fort Madison, Iowa. He is building a clear lead in the state.

DES MOINES — Their support is fractured and weak. They lack confidence in the conservative credentials of the national front-runners. If they have picked a candidate, satisfaction with their choice is tepid.

Interviews with voters this week and recent polls reinforce the sense that Iowans, with less than two weeks until their caucus, are uninspired by the Republican Party’s offerings, and many are settling for candidates with relatively low appeal.

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Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman, is building a clear lead, even though he is viewed by many in the state as unelectable. Frustration and resignation are common sentiments among Tea Party activists. Evangelical Christians have no single champion in the race.

‘‘The field is too weak,’’ lamented Scott Utter, a principal of a family-owned security business in Davenport where Newt Gingrich spoke to a group of mostly undecided GOP voters.

Some fret the GOP has failed to produce a viable national candidate who could harness the full measure of right-wing fervor in the general election, even as the current White House occupant appears vulnerable. Many wish former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the Iowa caucus winner in 2008, were back in the mix. Others are hoping, even at this late stage, that Sarah Palin, Jeb Bush, or Chris Christie will reconsider and get off the sidelines.

‘‘I’m still wondering if someone else is going to pop up,’’ said Barbara Hennings, a Republican voter at a Newt Gingrich town hall meeting outside of Cedar Rapids.

Lonnie Bauerly, a Tea Party activist from Spencer, said he is backing Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman who is polling in the single digits, not because he thinks she will win, but because her blend of social and fiscal conservatism fits his.

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‘‘We don’t have another Ronald Reagan, and I don’t think we’ll find one,’’ he said.

An Iowa State University poll released yesterday found that only 28 percent of likely caucus participants had definitely decided which candidate to support. The poll found they were leaning in multiple directions, with four candidates polling in double digits and none above 30 percent. An earlier poll this month by the University of Iowa found that 53 percent of Republican caucus voters were merely ‘‘somewhat satisfied’’ with their choice for the nomination. Thirty-five percent were very satisfied, and 12 percent were not satisfied.

The lack of passion in Iowa is reflected broadly across the country, according to a Gallup poll released yesterday. Nearly half of Americans don’t believe any of the candidates running — from either major political party —would make a good president. A similar Gallup poll in 2008 found much higher satisfaction with the candidates.

Among the possible effects: turnout at the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus may be lower than the above-average showing of 2008, when Huckabee galvanized religious conservatives and more than 120,000 Republicans attended the caucus. This time the religious vote is split among multiple candidates, which may discourage some from venturing from the family hearth to participate in the grueling, hourslong caucus process, said Thomas Patterson, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School who has studied caucus turnout.

Mitt Romney chatted with Alex Ray, owner of the Common Man restaurant in Ashland, N.H., while serving spaghetti dinner with his wife, Ann, at the VFW hall in Ashland yesterday.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Mitt Romney chatted with Alex Ray, owner of the Common Man restaurant in Ashland, N.H., while serving spaghetti dinner with his wife, Ann, at the VFW hall in Ashland yesterday.

‘‘Many on the Christian right spend a lot of time with family and the like,’’ he said. ‘‘That general level of malaise around the caucus is going to kind of enter into things.’’

Some caucus-night scenarios point to a muddled final result, with three or even four candidates demonstrating modest support. A strong pocket of excitement is building among Paul’s adherents, pushing him to the front of the pack before the Christmas pause in campaigning.

Mitt Romney is still failing to win over conservatives and remained stuck below 25 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of national and Iowa polls this week. The new Iowa State poll had him at 17.5 percent, running third behind Paul and Gingrich. Romney’s inability to build on his support has been a defining feature of the entire GOP primary and has underscored Tea Party dissatisfaction with the establishment’s choice.

Gingrich lacks Romney’s organization and money and is enduring a pummeling over his Washington activities, especially his $1.6 million in consulting work for government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac.

Republicans who turned out for a Gingrich town hall event in the Mississippi River city of Davenport and in Hiawatha, a suburb near Cedar Rapids, said they remained uncommitted.

‘‘At Christmas parties and stuff, a lot of them are like, ‘I still don’t know who I am voting for,’ ’’ said Judy L. Davidson, chairwoman of the Scott County Republicans.

A moderate Republican, Wilbert Ensenat, a caucus precinct chairman from Davenport, ticked off the positives and negatives of both Romney and Gingrich: Romney has executive branch experience as Massachusetts governor, but his rehearsed responses in public appearances are a turnoff. Gingrich displays more conservative passion and a sense of America’s place in history, but he carries heavy insidethe- beltway baggage.

‘‘It’s a shame you can’t roll them both up into one guy,’’ he said. ‘‘But they are who they are.’’

Mitt Romney waved to voters inside Village Pizza in Newport, N.H., yesterday.

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

Mitt Romney waved to voters inside Village Pizza in Newport, N.H., yesterday.

Voters in interviews frequently drew contrasts between this race and the 2008 contest.

‘‘I’m not seeing any real strong support like I did four years ago,’’ said Al Bregar, a Republican who turned up in Pella, a prosperous manufacturing community about 50 miles east of Des Moines, to hear former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum speak. ‘‘At this point four years ago, it was not uncommon to see dozens of Huckabee signs. This time, I haven’t seen a whole lot of yard signs.’’

Dell Collins, a Pella Republican who declined to pick up a Santorum placard as he left the Pella event, said he is still reviewing his options.

‘‘We have not coalesced this time — still looking and still unsure,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s the Republican Party. You’re seeing the flavor of the day.’’

There are built-in problems in 2012 for any candidate trying to inspire a broader base of Iowa Republicans, as Huckabee did in 2008. The economy was not the overriding issue then, and the Tea Party had yet to emerge as a force in American politics.

‘‘Today the battle lines are more sharply etched in the GOP, with candidates having to both meet social litmus tests set by the family values group, but also look competent to balance budgets and jump-start the economy,’’ said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University. ‘‘Not many meet that test, not even Romney, who is not trusted on social issues especially.’’

Christopher Rowland can be reached at crowland@globe.com

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