VOTE 2012

Iowa caucuses reach home stretch as contest winds down

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"It's a question of whether we'll be better off the day after Iowa than we were the day before," said Stuart Stevens, Romney's top strategist. "Hopefully we will be."

(Photo: Associated Press)

Romney has consistently pressed his central argument that only he has the ability to wage a strong enough campaign to beat Obama.

Santorum, popular among cultural and religious conservatives, and Paul, a libertarian-leaning candidate, worked to persuade Iowans that they would be able to attract a broad enough coalition of voters in the general election to beat Obama.

On Sunday, Romney engaged with Santorum for the first time since his rival's rise, offering mild criticism.

Santorum "has spent his career in the government in Washington," Romney said during a campaign stop in Atlantic. "I'll let people make their own assessment of our respective records," Romney said. "But I'm a conservative." Santorum, in turn, worked to counter Romney's electability argument.

"I'm the candidate that actually was able to win in states, as a conservative, in getting Democrats and independents to vote for us," Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who is surging in the race and is a favorite among cultural conservatives, said in an interview on CNN. "Mitt Romney has no track history of doing that."

Paul, too, worked to counter the suggestion that he's a fringe candidate, calling himself "electable" in a Sunday interview with ABC from his home state of Texas. He's looking to stem a recent slide as he's been attacked as outside the mainstream on foreign policy.

The issue of what type of candidate to choose cuts to the heart of why the race is so volatile.

An NBC/Marist poll last week showed nearly even percentages of Iowa caucus-goers want a candidate who shares their values as want a candidate who can beat Obama.

And a Des Moines Register poll released Saturday showed half of likely caucus-goers viewed Romney as the Republican most likely to win the November election.

On that question, he was far ahead of Santorum and Paul, who was viewed as least likely to win.

But Santorum beat Romney best when asked who relates best to Iowans.

Romney's support was steady in the poll with 24 percent, while Paul was sliding and Santorum rising in a race that will come down to which way on-the-fence Republicans here break.

All the other candidates trailed.

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