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Hours Before Caucuses, Many Iowan Voters Still Undecided Over GOP Contenders

January 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
With just hours to go until Tuesday night's Iowa Caucuses, and with a new poll confirming four in 10 caucus-goers are either undecided or could change their minds, the pressure on Republican presidential candidates to close the deal with Hawkeye State voters was palpable. Judy Woodruff reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Iowa remained the center of the political universe today, as six Republican presidential hopefuls turned to getting their supporters out to vote tomorrow, with nearly half of all caucus-goers telling The Des Moines Register they might still change their minds.

Judy Woodruff reports on the final push by the candidates ahead of tomorrow night’s caucuses.

RICK SANTORUM (R): Thank you all very much, and God bless.

(APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: All but ignoring the New Year holiday, the Republicans vying for a ticket out of Iowa scrambled to find supporters, but often attracted more news-people than voters.

MITT ROMNEY (R): How are you?

MAN: Welcome to Iowa.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With just hours to go until Tuesday night’s caucuses, and with a new highly respected poll confirming four in ten caucus-goers are either undecided or could change their minds, the pressure on candidates to make the sale was palpable.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN, R-Minn.: Please come out. We want your support.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Adding to the pressure was that poll showing Mitt Romney and Ron Paul battling it out at the top, but with Rick Santorum moving up fast from the back of the pack in the campaign’s final days.

Pollster Ann Selzer says Santorum seems to be benefiting from the collapse one by one of all the other conservatives.

J. ANN SELZER, Selzer & Co: He looks like a candidate that hasn’t been muddied. He looks like the guy that they can check all the boxes on fiscal conservative, social conservative. He looks like the guy people want.

RICK SANTORUM: Well, that’s the first time I have got that question.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But with voters’ main concern the economy and the self-identified Christian conservative vote smaller than it was four years ago, analysts are careful about forecasting a Santorum win.

Plus, the move in Santorum’s direction was coming so late, there were doubts about whether he has the money and the ability to go the distance. He quickly tried to reassure anyone who would listen that’s not a problem.

RICK SANTORUM: We have the best plan: to win the states that are necessary, to win this election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Santorum’s rise made him an immediate target for the other conservatives who are his main competitors, Rick Perry, for instance.

GOV. RICK PERRY, R-Texas: If you want to truly overhaul Washington, you have got to do it with someone who has not voted to raise our debt ceiling, I think eight different times while Rick was in the Senate. He allowed or debt to go from $4.1 trillion to $9 trillion while he was in the United States Senate. That’s more debt even than Obama has laid on us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And for front-running Romney, who was asked how he differs from Santorum.

MITT ROMNEY: Our backgrounds are quite different. Like Speaker Gingrich, Sen. Santorum has spent his career in the government, in Washington. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a very different background than I have. And I think that the people of this country recognize that, with our economy as the major issue we face right now, that it would be helpful to have someone who understands the economy firsthand.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney remains one of the main question marks of the campaign. The former governor competed hard in Iowa four years ago, hired the largest paid staff and spent the most money, but came in a distant second.

This time, he has mounted a leaner, less visible effort and played down expectations. He’s consistently drawn one-quarter of the vote in Iowa polls this year, which also show Republicans here see him as the most electable of the lot.

WOMAN: This time around, he’s become more personable. And it’s easier to — he’s more likable this time around.

WOMAN: I’m leaning towards Romney.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why?

WOMAN: Well, the first priority is to pick someone that can beat President Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it remains to be seen how large Romney can grow his support. Even Romney’s Iowa campaign chairman of four years ago, prominent Republican Doug Gross, has questions.

DOUG GROSS, Republican strategist: What’s not clear to me about Mitt Romney is what are indeed are his convictions, other than the fact that he really, really wants to be the next president of the United States. He’s a very ambitious guy, very strong in terms of his political ambitions. But, at the end of the day, what’s in his heart? What’s at his core?

JUDY WOODRUFF: As of today, Gross still doesn’t know whom he will vote for.

Meanwhile, the candidates the Romney camp has been most worried about have been struggling.

NEWT GINGRICH (R): If I have to get beaten up every day in the media and attacked every day with a bunch of negative ads designed by consultants who know nothing and paid for by people who don’t care what they do to this country, I will endure that.

NARRATOR: Newt has more baggage than the airlines. Freddie Mac helped cause the economic collapse, but Gingrich cashed in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Newt Gingrich has been on the defensive, in part because of the millions of dollars worth of negative ads run by his opponents and by the pro Romney so-called super PAC named Restore Our Future. New campaign laws mean it’s able to raise and spend unlimited funds, unlike the candidates.

NEWT GINGRICH: To spend that number of dollars in negative ads aimed at one candidate is pretty amazing.

QUESTION: Do you feel swift-boated?

NEWT GINGRICH: No, I feel Romney-boated.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The attacks seem to be working with many voters.

WOMAN: We’re afraid he has a little bit too much baggage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean by that?

WOMAN: Past, you know, rumors and personal issues and things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For his part, Rick Perry has struggled to recover from a late start and a string of poor debate performances. But Perry has raised money and is emphasizing organization in a state where that counts.

GOV. RICK PERRY: I’ll make a pact with you. If you all will go and have my back this coming Tuesday, I will have your back for the next four years in Washington, D.C.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GOV. RICK PERRY: God bless you and thank you all for coming out and being with us today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Perry and Gingrich are trading fourth and fifth places in the polls, setting up a contest of their own to see who remains viable after Iowa. When the results are announced Tuesday night, here at GOP election night headquarters, all eyes will be on not just the winner, but on what happens to the several Christian conservatives in the race.

Steve Scheffler, who heads the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, says he will vote for whomever Republicans nominate, but acknowledges that having so many choices hasn’t been ideal for the social conservative cause.

STEVE SCHEFFLER, Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition: This time, you just don’t seem to have that one that rises head and shoulders way above the others, you know, for people who say, yeah, that’s the one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that disappointing to you?

STEVE SCHEFFLER: Well, I mean, in an idealistic world, would I have liked to have seen one strong alternative to Mitt Romney? The answer would be yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other conservative getting squeezed by the competition is Michele Bachmann, who continues to insist she will surprise everyone.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: I’m a real, authentic Iowan. And that’s what they want, someone who will reflect their values, a complete — a complete package.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Adding to the unpredictability is the role played by libertarian Ron Paul, who appeals to younger voters and other anti-government activists in both political parties.

REP. RON PAUL, R-Texas: It is great to be here. I mean, this crowd is amazing. We were suggesting that we’d get a few people out at these whistle-stops and sort of encourage everybody along. But this is almost like a real rally. This is great, wonderful.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Paul has a loyal, organized following. And the latest poll indicates he’s running a strong second to Romney. But recent reports about extreme statements he’s made in the past add to his challenge after Iowa.

J. ANN SELZER: I think what voters like about him is that he represents their anger at what’s happened with government. And he represents dramatic change at a time when people are quibbling over what seem like small things.

But at the end of the day, he’s also — he ties with Michele Bachmann as the least electable. And again, I think that’s what this is coming down to. Do I want to send a message or do I want someone who can win?

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: I’m calling to ask for your vote on Tuesday night.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pollster Ann Selzer says, more than ever this year, the results will depend on who shows up at the caucuses Tuesday night, not only which candidates get out their supporters but also, unique to the caucuses, how persuasive are the people who have made up their minds?

J. ANN SELZER: If you walk into your caucus and hear somebody who you respect their opinion, you know they’re highly involved, they have put a lot of thought into it, they deliver a compelling message about it, you were — you know, you had a first choice, but maybe you weren’t as committed to them, that — you can be swayed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To help the swayers, candidates are now trying to sign up at least one committed speaker for each of Iowa’s more than 1,700 caucuses. No firm word on how that’s going, but it’s something else to worry about, as the clock runs out on this first-in-the-nation highly unpredictable presidential selection contest.