DES MOINES - Iowa voters may be on the verge of delivering a caucus plot twist Tuesday that seemed unlikely just a few short weeks ago: propelling Mitt Romney toward the Republican presidential nomination.
The state’s Republicans doused his ambitions in 2008, when they turned out in large numbers for Mike Huckabee. Romney shunned Iowa for most of 2011 as a result, placing his chips elsewhere in his second bid for the White House.
But in recent days, after a year of spectacular surges and flameouts by his rivals, the former Massachusetts governor is capitalizing on a tantalizing opportunity. He is attracting bigger and more enthusiastic crowds to his Iowa rallies. The most recent polls show he now has a strong chance of winning.
A Des Moines Register poll, a crucial final indicator of voter preference, said Romney was leading, with 24 percent of likely voters. US Representative Ron Paul of Texas was second with 22 percent. The newspaper poll’s results released last night were consistent with earlier polls by CNN/Time and NBC, which ranked Romney as a slight favorite over Paul, although the margins were statistically insignificant.
The Register poll revealed that former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum had risen into third place, with a small lead over Newt Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry.
Romney’s forces in Iowa continued to dampen expectations even as the candidate revved up his campaign in Sioux Falls last night for his final two-day push. But a clear sense of momentum has taken hold here. Instead of posing a problem that needs to be explained away, Iowa may give Romney a first-in-the-nation caucus gift.
“We’re in a position now to finish on an upswing,’’ said Romney’s senior campaign adviser in Iowa, David Kochel.
If Romney secures a surprise victory Tuesday and then captures the primary election Jan. 10 in New Hampshire, where he holds a comfortable lead in the polls, he would be launched on a strong trajectory toward the nominating convention in Tampa.
That would make him the first Republican who is not an incumbent president to capture both contests in the same year. It would mean that Republicans, despite the grassroots strength of Tea Party activists, will be closer to nominating a candidate with a moderate profile and the best shot, many political analysts believe, of defeating President Obama in the general election.
Even finishing second behind Paul, the latest non-Romney candidate to rise, would give Romney a considerable Iowa bounce. Paul holds libertarian views that many consider extreme, and he is seen by mainstream voters and party leaders as unelectable.
Romney’s camp would seek to dismiss Paul’s win as a quirk of conservative Iowa, while pointing to Romney’s second-place spot above the rest of the field: Santorum, Gingrich, Perry, and Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann.
A third-place finish for Romney remains a possibility, to be sure, and would make it more difficult for him to claim momentum.
As Gingrich has begun to fizzle, Santorum is mounting a late surge fueled by Christian conservatives. The Des Moines Register poll showed his numbers accelerating in the latter days of the survey from Tuesday through Friday.
The shifting field could contain more surprises in the next two days as a particular cross-section of dedicated Iowans prepared to place their imprint on the 2012 campaign.
Turnout estimates range from the typical 100,000 of several recent caucuses to the 120,000 hit in 2008. Voters will gather Tuesday evening in county auditoriums, school gymnasiums, and senior centers to elect individual caucus chairmen, listen to five-minute speeches from the supporters of each candidate, and then cast ballots. At one Davenport precinct, the laborious process will commence in the community room of a HyVee supermarket.
The Iowa voters expected to participate take their first-caucus role seriously. They scour candidate websites, attend town hall meetings, and avidly follow the news - especially Fox TV. Candidates and an array of outside interests have been trying to sway their opinion with a barrage of television advertising.
The lead is being contested by Paul’s ideologically driven, libertarian supporters and Romney’s more moderate backers who, despite his reputation for flip-flops, consider him the most electable candidate.
Romney has the benefit of a ready-made base of support from his second-place finish in 2008. He won 30,000 votes four years ago, and recapturing that base would help him secure victory in a fractured field.
Evangelical Christian voters who crowned Huckabee in 2008, helping him seize 41,000 votes, have been split this time among Santorum, Perry, and Bachmann.
Romney supporters also capitalized on new campaign rules. An independent “super PAC’’ that supports Romney, Restore Our Future, has aggressively attacked Gingrich with an expensive ad campaign.
The strategy blocked the speaker-turned-consultant’s surge with negative reminders, including that he accepted fees to advise the government-backed mortgage company Freddie Mac.
The assault has also given some voters pause about Romney, even though the candidate has described the activities of the super PAC, which is eligible to accept unlimited campaign contributions and is operated by some of his closest former aides, as beyond his control.
“The only problem has been his negative campaigning. It’s everywhere here in Iowa,’’ said Jess Paul, a retired Union Pacific Railroad employee.
“He would make a distinction, but the people here don’t. If I have trouble with someone and my brother beats him up, I’m responsible.’’
While knocking down Gingrich on the airwaves, the Romney camp is benefiting from discontent over Paul’s energetic candidacy, which many Iowans view as unsustainable.
Roger Stigers, a real estate agent from Cedar Rapids who attended a Romney town hall meeting, worried that handing Paul a victory would reinforce the sense, after Huckabee’s victory in 2008, that the state’s Republicans are nominating candidates who cannot contend on the national stage. “We don’t want to waste our vote,’’ he said.
Romney will barely acknowledge the circumstances that made him the front-runner in previously hostile territory.
All year he and his supporters downplayed the idea that he could compete strongly in Iowa. Yet, as they assiduously avoided positive talk, they tended to voting lists, set up phone banks, and mailed fliers.
“I’m not predicting a win here. I can’t possibly allow myself to think in such optimistic terms,’’ Romney said last week, words that belied the fresh confidence that had begun to permeate his campaign.
Romney’s bus tour wended through eastern Iowa last week in communities with the state’s largest share of moderate Republicans. He rolled to enthusiastic welcomes in such places as Cedar Rapids, Davenport, and the college town of Iowa City.
Many voters in that region said they had been considering Gingrich and Perry but were swinging behind Romney as the caucus approached.
“He’s the only one who’s got the chance to beat Obama,’’ said Greg Hagge, the owner of a furniture store who waited for Romney’s campaign bus to appear outside a Clinton diner.
Romney also has a chance to pick up support from the voters who supported Arizona Senator John McCain and former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson in 2008. McCain’s Clinton County chairman in the last election, Maurice Griggs, said he considered casting a ballot for Perry.
But he said Perry’s proposal to transform Congress into a part-time legislative body seems unrealistic. He now plans to support Romney, after seeing the former governor in Clinton.
“He gave a tremendous, patriotic speech, and I really think he has the skills, personally and business-wise, to make a good president,’’ said Griggs.
Paul’s strong standing in polls has been fueled by students and active Tea Party supporters.
He is running an insurgent campaign against the Republican establishment, as well as the media, which has renewed scrutiny of derogatory writings on gays and minorities that were published in Paul’s newsletters in the ’80s and ’90s. Paul has said he did not write the articles and did not know what was published in his name.
Paul’s opposition to government bureaucracy, his attacks on the Federal Reserve, and his call for an end to military interventions resonated for some in the crowd, including Luke Adler, who served two years in Afghanistan in the Army.
“We’re fed up,’’ he said. “Government has become so obscene and ridiculous.’’