CLIVE, Iowa — An unusually volatile Iowa caucus campaign, in which nearly every candidate has at some point led in polls, comes to an end today as voters decide who will win the opinion-shaping first vote of 2012.
Six of the Republican presidential candidates yesterday fanned out across the state in a day of politicking as they sought to bolster their campaigns — or prevent them from ending with defeat in the heartland.
Mitt Romney, buoyed by poll numbers and newfound confidence in a state that effectively ended his campaign four years ago, drew big crowds as he traveled across Iowa. He largely ignored surging rival Rick Santorum and focused solely on proclaiming his own credentials against President Obama.
Last night, he heightened his criticism of Obama, saying his policies would “poison the very spirit of America and keep us from being one nation under God.’’
“I’ve watched a president who’s become the great divider, the great complainer, the great excuse giver, the great blamer,’’ Romney said late yesterday afternoon in Marion, one of his four stops in a rolling bus tour through the cold cornfields of Iowa. “I want to have an America that comes together. I’m an optimist; I believe in the future of America. I’m not a pessimist.’’
The voting today could catapult Romney toward the nomination, and to friendly territory in New Hampshire, where much of the focus will shift tomorrow. But it could also launch yet another alternative to Romney in Rick Santorum, or provide Ron Paul supporters with evidence that their candidate is electable.
Three other candidates — Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich — were fighting yesterday to keep their campaigns viable after the results tonight. Gingrich led the field as recently as two weeks ago, but has since faltered and will have to find new ways to keep his candidacy alive.
Santorum, who polls show may be experiencing a late surge, made five stops, greeting Iowans in a cafe, a hotel ballroom, and in three Pizza Ranch buffet restaurants.
At the Reising Sun Cafe in Polk City, north of Des Moines, he spoke to a crush of media, which filled the room to capacity and forced some Iowans who had come to see him to wait outside in a freezing-cold parking lot.
“We’re going to win,’’ Santorum declared. “That’s what I came here to do: to win!’’
Santorum dismissed concerns that he lacks the money and organization to emerge as a credible nominee, even if he has a strong finish in Iowa. “It’s a long way between now and November,’’ he said. “We’ll have plenty of organization.’’
Adding a bit of media attention to Santorum’s appearance was Jim Bob Duggar, star of the reality TV show “19 Kids and Counting,’’ who came to Iowa to campaign for the former Pennsylvania senator yesterday.
Addressing a swarm of reporters, Duggar praised Santorum’s socially conservative views.
Paul arrived yesterday to a standing-room-only crowd who jammed a ballroom at the Des Moines Marriott and greeted the 76-year-old congressman with wild applause, a standing ovation, and chants of his name. Media from around the world flanked the stage, peppering Paul’s final-day push with an incessant clicking of camera shutters.
“Are we sick and tired of the expansion of government, the endless spending, and the deficit?’’ Paul said as supporters clapped, pumped their fists into the air, and shouted, “Yeah!’’ “Doing the things they weren’t supposed to do and forgetting about doing the things they should be doing?’’
“Tomorrow is a very important day,’’ Paul continued. “Small in numbers but a very big message. So you carry a lot of weight in this state to send a message on which way we’re going . . . so therefore a lot is at stake.’’
After hammering the other candidates for representing what he sees as variations of the status quo, he criticized their eagerness to be the policeman of the world. He also chastised them for not standing up for personal liberties. Paul urged the crowd to bring back “liberty, peace, and prosperity.’’
Gingrich spent the day slamming Obama rather than his caucus opponents.
At a stop in Walford, outside Cedar Rapids, he said the government is run by “a collection of amateurs’’ who are hyper-partisan. Responding to news reports that the president intends to bypass Congress as much as possible in the coming year, he accused Obama of ignoring the Constitution.
“The American people will not tolerate that kind of avoidance of the Constitution,’’ said Gingrich, who made his reputation in Congress as a take-no-prisoner partisan.
The “new Newt’’ has pledged to run a positive campaign, despite a withering assault on him in negative ads produced by a super PAC supporting Romney.
“We’ve refused to go negative and I think that was the right decision,’’ Gingrich said. “Iowa was an opportunity to send a signal that we are sick of negative advertisements and political consultants.’’ The attacks have dropped him from first in Iowa to a distant fourth in recent polls.
Regardless of where he places in the caucuses tonight, Gingrich’s chartered plane will fly to New Hampshire, said his spokesman, R.C. Hammond.
Gingrich, who has not built a large field organization, as most of his rivals have, devoted much of his last full day on the trail to media interviews with Piers Morgan on CNN, the “CBS Evening News,’’ and the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
Romney, with the social conservative vote fractured and the economy consuming the debate, continued to go after voters almost exclusively with pitches about jobs, patriotism, and the need to make Obama a one-term president.
He has also benefited from a barrage of negative ads that stifled Gingrich’s rise several weeks ago. Most of the ads were run by a group of Romney supporters who, although organizationally independent from the campaign, have taken advantage of loosened campaign finance laws to deliver their message.
In one sign of confidence, Romney is planning to spend tonight holding a party at the Hotel Fort Des Moines, and conduct media interviews tomorrow morning. Presumably, he thinks he will have good news to discuss.
“I sense something happening as we’ve been going across Iowa,’’ Ann Romney told a crowd of supporters yesterday morning at a dance hall in Davenport. “I sense a feeling, a coalescing, a momentum — or whatever you want to call it — around Mitt. And I think people are starting to figure out that this is the guy that is going to beat Barack Obama.’’
Romney was joined yesterday by Senator John Thune of South Dakota and Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah. He also had the biggest family contingent of the race, with three of his five sons (Tagg, Josh, and Craig) and his brother Scott and his wife.
Throughout the day, Romney delivered his standard stump speech rather than a critique of the Republican rivals. Trying to cast himself as a change agent, he said he would be the one who could end worries over the economy.
“We can remember a time when things were better; these have been a tough three years. But these years have been a detour, not a destiny,’’ Romney said. “We remember a time when you didn’t have to worry about looking at the gas pump . . . and when you spent your week thinking about what movie you’d take your kids to on the weekend, as opposed to worrying whether you can put food on the table until the weekend.’’
The Iowa caucus tonight will effectively end the first phase of the campaign, where candidates have focused on building their organizations, crafting their campaign message, cutting television ads, and hoping it all sticks with voters.
Support in the state, mirroring the national polls, has bounced from Bachmann to Perry to Herman Cain to Gingrich. But in recent days, as Gingrich has fended off attack ads, the race has boiled down to Romney, Paul, and Santorum.
Romney is running largely on economic themes and suggesting that he would be the most electable against Obama.
Paul, with his strident brand of libertarianism, has excited Tea Party activists while Santorum has started to mobilize some of the social conservatives in the state.
Romney’s campaign advisers insist they are not threatened by Santorum, who has newfound momentum and who, with a victory tonight, could seize the energy of Republicans who have not rallied behind Romney.
“The key here is who has the organization that’s strong enough to keep going, from state to state to state,’’ said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser. “When you look at the field, the answer to that is obvious: It’s Mitt Romney.’’
Although Romney is planning to fly to New Hampshire tomorrow morning, he is not focusing solely on the state. He also plans to travel to South Carolina later in the week, where some of his rivals are preparing to pour their energy. Perry is heading straight to the Palmetto State, hoping fellow Southerners will give him a second look.
Candidates who are campaigning in New Hampshire will be welcomed there by Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, who traveled to Iowa only for debates and has long made the Granite State his second home. There will be two debates there this weekend - on Saturday and Sunday - and the state’s voters will seek to put their stamp on the race.
Michael Levenson, Brian Mooney, and Tracy Jan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.