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As caucus day nears, Iowa Republicans' pragmatism could benefit Mitt Romney's campaign
MASON CITY, Iowa (AP) ' Iowa Republicans may be starting to choose with their heads rather than their hearts before the Jan. 3 caucuses, the first voting on the road to next year's presidential election.
The ascent of libertarian-leaning Ron Paul and the lack of a strong conservative candidate seem to be awakening a new sense of pragmatism in some Iowa Republicans. That bodes well for Mitt Romney, as a large chunk of undecided voters continues the search for someone capable of defeating President Barack Obama.
"A lot of the people I'm around are not Romney fans, but they are kind of acknowledging they think he's going to be the nominee, and that they'll plug their nose and vote for him," said Gwen Ecklund, Republican chairwoman in Crawford County in conservative western Iowa.
A week before voting begins in the fluid Republican race, interviews with a dozen Iowa political operatives and party activists ' as well as internal polling by rival campaigns ' suggest that some Iowans are increasingly concerned about Paul, whose views often stray from Republican orthodoxy, and have begun to fall in line behind Romney instead of other candidates seen as more conservative but weaker against Obama.
Public and private polling suggests Romney is more often the second choice of Republican caucus-goers than any other candidate, indicating that Republicans could be swayed in the coming week to support him.
Few see Paul, the ideological libertarian, as a substitute for their first choice of a hardline conservative. In a sign of the slide by former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry ' who is seeing a slight bump as the Iowa campaign nears its end ' is more often identified as a second choice than is Gingrich.
Public polls show that at least half of caucus-goers are undecided or could still change their mind, meaning Romney, the former Massachusetts governor whose Mormon faith and reversals on social issues have left influential Iowa Christian conservatives feeling skeptical, now has an opportunity to try to seal the deal.
Mindful of that, Romney is entering the final phase of the Iowa campaign with a confident air after trying to lower expectations earlier in the campaign. He spent heavily here in 2008 only to lose big.
Romney was launching a bus tour of Iowa on Tuesday and arguing that he is the strongest Republican to challenge Obama on the No. 1 issue, the economy. His campaign also urged supporters during a conference call Monday to sign up to represent Romney at the caucuses ' essentially meetings of Republican activists in the state's 1,774 precincts ' and to stand up to speak on behalf of the campaign.
Romney planned to spend four full days in the state, by far his longest trip in four years.
In a race with no shortage of leaders this year, Paul has been the latest to become a leading, non-establishment alternative to Romney. But the newfound status has brought new scrutiny of Paul's unorthodox, noninterventionist foreign policy views and statements that appeared in newsletters he published in the early 1990s when he was not serving in Congress.
Among the statements: "Homosexuals, not to speak of the rest of society, were far better off when social pressure forced them to hide their activities." Another newsletter passage said "if you have ever been robbed by a black teen-aged male, you know how unbelievably fleet-footed they can be." Paul previously said such material was the work of ghostwriters, while acknowledging he bore "some moral responsibility" for it.
It's enough to worry some Iowa Republicans that Paul could marginalize the caucuses' impact if he wins.
Gingrich has slid from the lead in the wake of an onslaught of negative TV and radio ads ' from Paul and allies of Romney's ' highlighting his collaboration on climate change with Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi and his consulting work for the federally backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac after he left the House. Leaflets noting his two divorces and acknowledged marital infidelity also have popped up across the state.
Perry, however, seems to be running slightly stronger than he has in months. He's drawn large, enthusiastic crowds during a bus tour and aides to rival candidates say favorability toward him is rising. It's a sign that the roughly $5 million Perry has spent on advertising since late October may be paying dividends.