Fate of GOP hopefuls rests with undecided voters

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LE MARS, Iowa (AP) - The volatile Republican presidential race in Iowa will come down to which way an enormous chunk of undecided voters breaks in the coming days.

With the first-in-the-nation voting of the 2012 race for the White House looming Tuesday, Mitt Romney is contending for victory in a state that eluded him four years ago, while Rick Santorum - a hero among social conservatives - surges and libertarian-leaning Ron Paul slides in a contest that remains incredibly fluid.

With many factors at play, the dynamics can shift rapidly.

Yet, two things were clear on the final weekend before the caucuses: The yearlong effort to establish a consensus challenger to Romney had so far come up short, and Romney's carefully laid plan to survive Iowa may succeed because conservative voters have so far failed to unite behind one candidate.

"It may be Romney's to lose at this point," said John Stineman, an Iowa GOP campaign strategist. "And it's a battle among the rest."

Underscoring the unpredictability of the race, a new poll by The Des Moines Register showed that a remarkable 41 percent of likely caucus-goers say they were undecided or still might change their minds.

Romney had 24 percent support among likely voters while Paul had 22 percent, meaning they were statistically even at the front of the pack.

Santorum was third with 15 percent, followed by Newt Gingrich, with 12 percent, and Rick Perry, with 11 percent. Michele Bachmann, a one-time Iowa favorite, brought up the rear with 7 percent.

However, in a sign of how quickly things can change, the last two days of the poll - taken Tuesday through Friday - found Santorum with momentum and Paul losing his. Heading into the weekend, Romney held a narrow lead, but Santorum was right behind him with 21 percent while Paul had fallen to 18 percent.

The poll's margin of sampling error for the full four days was plus or minus 4 percentage points. For the last two days, it was plus or minus 5.6 percentage points.

On Sunday, the candidates were making their closing arguments, both in appearances across Iowa as well as on national television, while volunteers and staffers canvassed the state to start mobilizing backers.

Paul, who was at home in Texas for the weekend, was making the rounds of Sunday talk shows, while Santorum, Perry and Bachmann were doing the same from Iowa. Interviewed on CNN's "State of the Union," Paul discounted the impact of Santorum's surge on his own campaign.

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