In the small city of Atlantic, Iowa, a crowd of people squished inside the Family Table Restaurant to listen to Mitt Romney explain, again, why he should be the Republican nominee to face off against U.S. President Barack Obama.
“Quite a few people … are here,” the former Massachusetts governor said, surveying the crowd while standing atop a wooden crate behind the counter of the eatery about 120 kilometres west of the capital, Des Moines.
Romney may have had a bit of spring in his step because the latest poll shows him tied for the lead with Ron Paul just two days before the Iowa caucuses, the first big step in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination process.
Reporters, who represented the largest segment of the crowd, grumbled about the size of the venue, but they crammed in along with the party faithful, including many who said they still hadn't made up their minds about which candidate to back.
"I haven't decided yet, I don't have much time," said Connie Burns, a Republican stalwart. "Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney are the two I'm looking at."
On Tuesday, Iowa Republicans will flock into gymnasiums, firehalls, community centres and libraries to vote in the 1,774 precinct caucuses and choose delegates for the nomination convention.
While a few campaign signs pop up here and there, it’s unclear whether caucus fever has taken over the state, although national and international journalists have definitely taken over Des Moines.
The importance of the Iowa caucuses continues to be debated.
Corn, not presidents
For Republicans, its track record as prognosticator is spotty — only two of the last five winners have gone on to claim the nomination. (Mike Huckabee won Iowa in 2008, but Arizona Senator John McCain was the eventual nominee).
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who has bypassed the state, recently dismissed all the hoopla, saying “they pick corn in Iowa” and pick presidents in New Hampshire.
Michael Barone, writing in the Wall Street Journal, said some Iowa Republican insiders are predicting that turnout may not even reach the 119,000 of 2008. (And lest we forget, Iowa, as a state, usually votes Democrat.)
But David Yepsen, a former Des Moines Register political reporter and considered the guru of Iowa caucus politics, emphasized the importance of Iowa.
"This is important because this is the start, it's because it's first," Yepsen told CBC News. "Whenever you start the selection for an American president, it's a big story — a big story in the country and a big story around the world."
Yepsen said the caucuses can also play a role of slingshotting a particular candidate. If Romney, for example, either wins or finishes strongly in Iowa and then claims victory in New Hampshire, it may be difficult to catch him.
But the caucuses also weed out the weaker candidates: “Some won’t be able to continue campaigning after a poor showing in Iowa,” Yepsen said.
Good news for Romney
The campaign has seen the front-runner status switch hands several of times.
But heading into Tuesday, a Des Moines Register poll had Romney and Texas representative Paul in a virtual dead heat for the lead with 24 per cent and 22 per cent respectively — good news for Romney who had a disastrous showing in 2008
However, it’s Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who campaigned in all 99 counties, who seems to be surging. Santorum received 15 per cent of support, placing him ahead of Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker whose lead evaporated last week after his opponents, including Romney and Paul, rolled out devastating attack ads across the state.
“A couple of weeks ago, we were in the bottom — last place. But we were hopeful the message was beginning to resonate,” Hogan Gidley, a spokesman for Santorum, told CBC News. “We’re thankful we’re moving up in the polls. The momentum is with us. We feel good about where we are and where we’re going to be.”
Santorum has benefited from support from the Christian right, an important faction within the party that made up an estimated 60 per cent of the Republican caucus voters in 2008. However, unlike Huckabee in 2008, he has been unable to secure the majority of their support.
Pastor Jeff Mullen said that last time Huckabee was really the only strong Christian candidate.
“It’s not so much that evangelicals are divided. I think we have four strong, very conservative candidates,” Mullen said in an interview from his Point of Grace Church, located just west of Des Moines, acknowledging that will split the vote.
But the fear of vote splitting has concerned some Christian leaders. Several met in an attempt to come up with a single candidate they could all support and possibly persuade some of the other candidates to quit.
"I think trying to get all pastors to vote for one candidate would be like trying to herd cats. You know it’s just not possible and not very probable and very late in the game," said Mullen, who attended a meeting.
"There are some other leaders who thought this would be a great idea and I love those leaders … but I didn't engage in that process."
Mullen, who is supporting Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, said there's no indication how his congregation will vote as a whole.
"I think the one sure thing about Tuesday is there's nothing sure thing about Tuesday."