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Hours before Iowa, Mitt Romney leads (barely), Rick Santorum surges

The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll shows just how volatile the Republican race for the presidential nomination is. Mitt Romney holds onto a slim lead, but Rick Santorum is surging toward second place and 40 percent of likely caucus-goers say they haven't made up their mind.

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And, unlike the early months of the race when he didn’t spend a lot of time in Iowa, Romney has virtually camped out here recently, and he’s at the point now where he’s promising to come back after he’s been nominated. He’ll spend Monday in Cedar Rapids, Davenport, and Dubuque.

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What Romney also has going for him is the growing perception of electability come the general election – something neither Santorum nor Paul has. Asked who would be “the most electable in the general election,” Romney is way ahead of all the others with 48 percent.

As the clock ticks inexorably toward Tuesday, timing seems to be on Romney’s side as well.

"You've had six frontrunners in Iowa over the past year. That's unprecedented, I think," Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, told the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier in Iowa. "With six frontrunners, timing really is critical and oddly enough it's the original frontrunner who may be timing this just right – that is Mitt Romney."

Meanwhile, Romney continues to benefit from disagreement among social conservatives, libertarians, and tea party types over whom to back as the anybody-but-Mitt alternative.

“The hour is short and everyone recognizes that you can only vote for one, so a decision has to be made. It’s been a particularly hard decision this round,” Chuck Hurley, the Iowa social conservative activist who has endorsed Santorum, told Politico.com. “There’s been enough discussion of the math for the conscientious voter to know that it’s important to not splinter conservative votes, if at all possible.”

One big question: Could Santorum’s Iowa momentum propel him through upcoming contests? He virtually lived in Iowa these past few months, trudging from coffee shop to coffee shop in all 99 counties. Does he have the stamina (not to mention the message and the campaign financing) to continuing surging?

The GOP caucuses next week kick things off in the long, grueling nomination process. Then, it’ll be on to New Hampshire a week later, followed by South Carolina, Florida, and the other states.

But for now, says Mr. Sabato, "This is Iowa's moment. The parade will move on after next Tuesday."

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