By Steven Thomma, McClatchy Newspapers
COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Hold on to your hats. The Republican presidential campaign in Iowa heads into its final two weeks with a wild race that’s wide open. Almost anyone could win.
Newt Gingrich’s surge has faded, his momentum stalled by questions raised in two debates, a media barrage and a rush of TV ads against him.
Ron Paul has risen, his deeply loyal fans now smelling possible victory.
Mitt Romney remains a top-tier threat.
Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are tapping into Christian conservative support that could help them deliver a surprise when Iowa Republicans kick off the voting for a presidential nominee with precinct caucuses Jan. 3.
“It’s as unsettled now as it’s ever been,” said Craig Robinson, the editor of The Iowa Republican website and a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party.
Driving the race into its final days is the fact that Gingrich’s momentum has stalled and his support eroded, locking him in at least a three-way fight with Paul and Romney for the top spot. He’s been hammered in two debates and on TV ads now flooding the Iowa airwaves as a man who cheated on two wives, a flip-flopper who’s backed some liberal causes and an insider who’s made millions from government connections.
“We thought Gingrich was solidifying his support. But the ads are having an effect; his negatives are going up,” Robinson said. “As more and more light is shed on his record, people are going to sour on him a little.”
Wendy Storcy, a retired graphics manager from Council Bluffs, is one of those who were first dazzled by Gingrich’s robust debate style, then doubtful about his personal and political record.
“I liked him in the debates,” she said. “But all the questions coming up about him make me doubt. He’s had three marriages. How faithful IS he? Is he really a committed person? It is a reflection of character.”
Gingrich’s stall creates an opening for Paul.
The Texas congressman has a unique appeal to libertarian Republicans, with his emphasis on civil liberties, opposition to U.S. military intervention abroad and vow to slash $1 trillion from government spending in one year.
“He’s an archconservative,” said Terry Welch, a tire factory worker from Polk City, Iowa. “A lot of Republicans don’t like him. But he’s got a shot at winning. At least second.”
Paul boasts one of the deepest organizations in the state, one that Robinson said focused on college towns and urban areas where the libertarian pitch had the most appeal. Paul aides expect to turn out more than 20,000 supporters to the caucuses.
Romney also is a top-tier contender. The former Massachusetts governor is appealing to Iowans with his pitch that he’s the strongest candidate to take on President Barack Obama.
Yet Romney’s top advisers discount the idea of Iowa as a make-or-break contest for him, arguing that they’re prepared for a long coast-to-coast fight for the delegates needed to win the nomination.
One candidate who’s betting heavily on Iowa is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who’s spending a reported $3 million on TV ads in a last-ditch effort at a comeback after debate stumbles cost him his early lead. As his ads boast of his Christian faith, he’s launched a statewide bus tour asking for a second look.
Finally, Bachmann, a U.S. representative from Minnesota, and Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, are hoping that their appeal to Christian conservatives will give them a last-minute, under-the-radar boost.
Both got enthusiastic applause from Christian conservatives this week at an event hosted by Mike Huckabee, whose appeal to the same voters helped him win the caucuses four years ago.
“Bachmann and Santorum,” Robinson said, “are more in play for social conservatives who were kicking the tires of other candidates.”
©2011 the McClatchy Washington Bureau