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.

If the dash toward Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses were a horse race, Mitt Romney would be in the lead with Ron Paul half a length behind and Rick Santorum coming on strong. Others had been in the lead through the backstretch, but they’ve faded or dropped out.

Meanwhile, according to poll results released Saturday night, more than 40 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers – an unusually large number this late in the race – claim not to have decided which horse to back.

Results of the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll show just how volatile the Republican race for the presidential nomination is: 24 percent for Romney, 22 percent for Paul (with a 4-point margin of error, that’s a virtual tie), and 15 percent for Santorum. Back in the pack were Newt Gingrich with 12 percent, Rick Perry with 11 percent, and Michele Bachmann – Iowa native and one-time poll leader – with just 7 percent.

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Experts say there’s unusual uncertainty in the final pre-caucus hours, with any number of outcomes possible. J. Ann Selzer, who conducts the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll, put it this way in the newspaper Sunday morning:

“What if there is a late-breaking surge of evangelicals who decide to caucus at the last moment? What if seniors, who appear less likely to attend the Republican caucuses this time than in 2008, change their minds and come out caucus night in numbers similar to last time? What if disaffected supporters of Barack Obama decide to caucus on the Republican side this time around?”

One clear sign of that uncertainty: In the last two days of polling (which began Tuesday), Santorum had surged to second place with 21 percent and Paul had dropped back to third with 18 percent.

Making things even squirrelier, Democrats and Independents have the right to show up on caucus night, change their party registration, and participate as newly baptized Republicans. If the weather’s decent, many might just do that.

If races like this are all about momentum and expectations, Romney seems happy to be Mr. Steady-as-he goes. He’s not the wild favorite among Republicans – far from it – but he hasn’t stumbled (yet), and he’s been able to fend off challengers. His Des Moines Register figures track similarly to CNN/Time/ORC and NBC/Marist polls earlier in the week.

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.

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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