By Thomas Fitzgerald, The Philadelphia Inquirer –
WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — An icy wind scoured the parking lot of the Hy-Vee supermarket, ruffling Mitt Romney’s perfect hair as he urged about 500 rain-soaked people to stand up for him in Tuesday’s Republican caucuses.
“I need your help, you guys,” Romney said Friday over the gale. “This is a real battle — it’s a battle for the future course of America. I don’t want politicians running America anymore. I want to make sure that we have citizen leaders going to Washington … fighting for the soul of this great country.”
Whether the nation’s soul is at stake remains to be seen, but on Tuesday, Iowans will cast the first votes of the battle over which Republican will challenge President Barack Obama, perhaps beginning to frame terms of the larger 2012 fight.
In a volatile GOP presidential race driven largely by conservative distaste for Romney, the latest twist is this: The former investment banker and Massachusetts governor could win the first balloting of the nomination contest in Iowa, where evangelical activists have dominated.
And former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a favorite of religious conservatives, is moving up fast in a tightening race, according to the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll, released Saturday.
That poll showed Romney in the lead with 24 percent, followed by libertarian Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 22 percent and Santorum at 15 percent.
The pollster also separated results from the final two days of the four-day sample to capture momentum: Santorum was in second place with 22 percent, and Paul dropped to third with 18 percent. Romney remained the same.
Many conservatives criticize Romney, now in his second campaign for president, for switching stances on abortion rights and same-sex marriage, moving to the right over time along with prevailing opinion in his party. As his rivals keep reminding voters, he also pushed through a measure in Massachusetts requiring people to buy health insurance, a feature of Obama’s national health-care law.
But with the weak economy the overriding issue — the national unemployment rate is 8.6 percent, and growth is anemic — and with Obama’s approval ratings still at near-historic lows, GOP establishment leaders argue that the party should emphasize jobs and downplay issues such as abortion. They don’t want to scare off independent voters who, in an era of waning loyalties to the major parties, hold the keys to a national victory.
“I’m a moderate Republican — we’re not all evangelical idiots in Iowa,” said Sarah Kehlenbeck, 61, of West Des Moines, who turned out for Romney’s Hy-Vee rally and backs him as the most electable. “I want the government out of my life and out of my bedroom.” She thinks the nation has swung too far toward an “entitlement society,” a theme Romney stresses.
“The Bible is a wonderful book,” she said. “Just keep it in church and at home, not in the government.”
Dave Ashby said that it “couldn’t be more important” to beat Obama and that Romney was probably the strongest bet to achieve that goal.
“But I couldn’t vote for somebody who’s absolutely pro-choice,” said Ashby, 72, a retired school principal from Gilbert, Iowa. “I’m just not sure where Romney stands. It seems like he’s making himself sound good for everybody.” Ashby is also considering Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
A party divided? Tensions between social and economic conservatives, insurgents and the establishment have been a GOP story line for decades. Though evangelicals are a smaller bloc in other early-voting states, analysts warn against discounting Iowa’s narrow slice of the Republican pie. They say the conflicts playing out there will continue.
“Instead of pitting social conservatives against fiscal conservatives, the Republican Party has to come to terms with both camps,” said Catherine Wilson, a Villanova University professor who specializes in religion and politics.
After staying away for most of the year, Romney has been pushing in Iowa, buoyed by the latest polls and hoping for a victory that — combined with a Jan. 10 win in New Hampshire, where he is heavily favored — would give him a commanding lead.
Republicans who identify themselves as evangelical Christians, who constituted 60 percent of the electorate in Iowa’s 2008 caucuses, have been split among several candidates this time, which helps Romney. And Paul, a libertarian who has a committed base of believers and a grassroots organization that has grown since 2008, is also vying for the lead in polls.
Santorum has surged in the final days, picking up support from voters who have deserted former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a field littered with erstwhile front-runners. Santorum is battling for the evangelical vote with two of them: Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
The Register’s poll, based on interviews with likely caucus-goers from Dec. 27 through Dec. 30, found Gingrich at 12 percent, Perry at 11 percent, and Bachmann with 7 percent.
The full sample has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. In the final two days of polling, the margin of error was plus or minus 5.6 percentage points.
Santorum’s shoe-leather approach is a reminder of Iowa’s role in recent decades as the intimate shaper of the national political conversation, with one-to-one encounters between voters and candidates in diners and town libraries. But that role has been threatened in this cycle by 13 nationally televised debates that have caused candidates to rise and fall and led to a decline in the number of grassroots campaign events in Iowa.
Playing out like an “American Idol” season, the debates led various candidates to pop up as conservative alternatives to Romney, only to fall back as their flaws were exposed in later debates or under scrutiny of rivals and the media.
Over the summer, Bachmann was the favorite, but she seemed to have little to say beyond “Repeal Obamacare.” She was replaced in the spotlight by Perry, who brought social-conservative bona fides and experience overseeing a Texas economy that generated jobs. Then he stumbled in debates, with GOP voters concluding, fairly or not, that he might be out of his depth. Herman Cain, who recited his “9-9-9” tax plan as a mantra and was fond of quoting Pokemon lyrics, took the lead for a couple of weeks — until allegations of sexual misbehavior knocked him out.
Finally, Gingrich, whose campaign was given up for dead in the summer, surged to challenge Romney’s lead — he was a killer debater — but he, too, has sunk under attacks on his post-House role as a Washington influence-peddler.
Reality-show aspects aside, the campaign has raised serious questions about American politics that will be at the center of the 2012 race. How much government do we want? Is it possible to mend the social safety net so it is fiscally sustainable? How do we get the economy going again?