VOTE 2012

Iowa caucuses reach home stretch as contest winds down

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DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) - Challenging Mitt Romney one day before the lead-off presidential caucuses, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum on Monday implored legions of undecided voters to "not settle for someone as your nominee who might be able to win the election but it might be a pyrrhic victory" that comes at too great a cost.

(Photo: Associated Press)

On the final full day of campaigning before Tuesday's contest, Romney - the GOP front-runner in Iowa and nationally - faced a suddenly rising Santorum, an unpredictable Ron Paul factor and the challenge of winning over on-the-fence voters in a state that vanquished him four years ago.

Despite that pressure, Romney ignored his rivals and kept his focus on President Barack Obama, calling the 2012 election a battle for the "soul of America."

"This is a contest about the economy and about the budget and about foreign affairs, but it's also an election that is bigger than that," Romney said at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds. Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, sounded increasingly optimistic.

"I look forward to building on our momentum from Iowa to again defy expectations in New Hampshire," a confident Santorum said as the day began, announcing the endorsement of several New Hampshire politicians and making clear his intent to compete aggressively in that state's Jan. 10 primary regardless of the Iowa outcome.

At a cafe in Polk City, he noted Romney's emphasis on his private-sector experience and added: "We are not looking for executive experience. We are looking for a commander in chief."

With time short, Romney, Santorum and Paul, as well as the trailing Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, fanned out across the Midwestern state to make closing arguments to the chunk of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers who say they haven't decided who to support and still could change their minds.

"I feel very confident. We've got a great ground game," Perry said on NBC as the day began, highlighting the 41 percent of likely voters who say in a recent poll that they could be persuaded to vote for someone else.

Bachmann, who was born in Waterloo but later moved to Minnesota, rolled out a TV ad - her first since before an August test vote in Iowa - reminding Republican caucus voters of her Iowa roots and stiff stands in Washington. The ad twice mentions Bachmann's Iowa heritage and calls her "one of our own."

It's been a costly race with at least $12.5 million in advertising - much of it negative - flooding Iowa's airwaves in the run-up to the caucuses as candidates and outside groups aligned with them, called super PACs, worked to influence the outcome of what remains a wide open race.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has roughly the same amount of backing in polls as he did in 2008 when he lost the race with 25 percent of the vote amid skepticism over his Mormon faith and reversals on some social issues.

This year, he has been counting on the GOP conservative base splintering in a multicandidate field to allow him to win with roughly the same percentage of the vote.

But now, Santorum is challenging him for the lead, and the anti-abortion crusader is looking to unify socially conservative voters behind his candidacy. And that's putting pressure on Romney, who is focusing on turning out his base of support from his last campaign.

Romney aides say they still feel confident heading into Tuesday's contest - but they've become more careful in recent days to qualify their expectations.

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