Just two months before the GOP nomination voting begins, Iowa's presidential caucuses are any Republican candidate's to win. Republicans aren't really leaning toward former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney even though he's essentially been running for president since losing in the state in 2008. This time, none of his opponents have emerged as the consensus candidate of conservatives, however that could soon change.
Sensing an opening, Romney is stepping up his Iowa campaign and talking about winning the state after months of taking a more low-key approach. He probably will return to Iowa in November and hold a conference call with thousands of Iowa GOP caucus-goers.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, casting himself as the conservative option, is starting to confront Romney. With $15 million in the bank, Perry started running a TV ad last week that, without mentioning Romney challenges Romney's efforts to portray himself as the strongest candidate on the economy.
"I'll create at least 2 1/2 million new jobs, and I know something about that," Perry says in the ad that highlights Texas job creation.
Businessman Herman Cain, a political outsider enjoying a burst of momentum, has begun to focus more on Iowa, adding staff and visiting the state recently for the first time in 10 weeks. He's popular for his business background and plain-spoken speaking style. However he's far behind in building an Iowa campaign and he's under attack by conservatives for referring recently to abortion as a choice. But he trails both Romney and Perry in fundraising by the millions.
The up-for-grabs nature of the Iowa race matters nationally because the outcome on Jan. 3 will shape what happens in the states that vote next -- New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida -- and beyond.
As it stands now, Iowa reflects the Republican Party's lack of clarity when it comes to the crowded GOP field and its increasingly urgent search for a candidate who can defeat Democratic President Barack Obama next fall.
Iowa's evangelical pastors, influential among a part of the GOP base, are divided. So are home-school advocates.
Most of the 2012 candidates, but not Romney, courted Christian conservatives at a forum on values last weekend. The all-out effort to court social conservative is partly why Romney is recalibrating his approach toward Iowa, where he's only made three visits this year. He has been reached out quietly to past supporters and working to cast himself as the candidate with the strongest economic credentials. Unlike in 2008, he's not overtly competing for the love of social conservatives. These voters, a potent bloc in the caucuses, have had doubts about his Mormon faith and his reversals on several social issues.
Romney is the only major candidate who hasn't committed to appearing in Iowa at Tuesday's forum on manufacturing hosted by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad in Pella or the state GOP dinner Friday in Des Moines.
He has little choice given that he's lagging in state polls, facing challenges from the right and fighting with rivals for the backing of social conservatives. The former Texas agriculture commissioner and Air Force officer is trying to broad his appeal, reaching out to veterans and farmers as he looks to cobble together a winning coalition and stop Romney.