By Cameron Joseph – The Hill
Iowa is looking like a two-man race with a little more than 100 hours to go before caucus time, though conservative Rick Santorum could still be a spoiler.
The biggest question is whether Santorum can coalesce conservative support in the state and catch front-runners Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.
Santorum has leaped into the conversation with polls showing him running solidly in the top three.
“Is this momentum that he has enough to launch him through the ceiling to the top, or just to put him in a respectable place?” asked Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). “At this point, I just don’t know.”
An NBC News-Marist Poll released Friday morning suggested the Iowa fight is a two-man race between Paul and Romney. The former Massachusetts governor led with 23 percent compared to Paul’s 21 percent.
Santorum was in third and surging, but still behind with 15 percent support. And in the NBC poll, Santorum was just ahead of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had 14 percent.
Republicans across Iowa said Santorum’s surge is for real and has been building for weeks. But both Romney and Paul are in a strong position. While there is consensus that those three will top the leader board on Jan. 3, it’s unclear whether Santorum can catch up in the closing days of the campaign.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich held 13 percent in the NBC poll, which — like other recent surveys — suggested his support was falling. Gingrich, who teared up at one campaign appearance on Friday, announced he would leave Iowaimmediately after the caucuses in a move that could be seen as an effort to downplay the result in the state.
In the two latest polls of Iowa voters Santorum received 16 percent support, a big bump from the low single digits he’d been at for months.
“The last time we talked I was a little skeptical [of Santorum’s rise] mainly because I think social conservatives have been hoping so much to have someone to coalesce behind they were projecting their hopes a little bit,” said Steve Deace, an influential conservative talk-radio host in Des Moines.
“But that’s changed … he’s got the momentum right now.”
Santorum has worked Iowa harder than any other candidate, spending nearly 100 days there in the past year and visiting all 99 counties, many on multiple occasions. He’s been rewarded with slowly swelling crowds — and the endorsements of prominent Iowa social conservatives including Bob Vander Plaats, who ran former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s winning 2008 Iowa campaign and finished in a strong second place in the GOP gubernatorial primary last year.
Paul has the best field organization in the state, and nearly won the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames last August. He has polled in the double digits for months and has seen support for his candidacy tick up after some effective ads hammering the other candidates and touting his anti-abortion-rights bona fides.
But he also announced Friday he would go back to Texas and leave Iowa over New Year’s weekend.
Bob Johnson, a Dubuque-area Tea Party leader and Paul backer, said: “Because there’s so much distaste for the big media stations it’s kind of having a coalescing effect for the candidate that gets picked on by the mainstream media.”
Deace agreed. “The reality is the more people try to discredit Ron Paul, call him kooky and crazy, they’re actually helping him,” he said. “All these attempts to expose Paul as some anti-Semitic racist are just adding more votes to Paul’s column.”
Romney’s campaign has long sought to downplay the importance of the Iowa caucuses but of late has stepped up its efforts there. He is in the middle of a four-day swing through the state, and will be back Saturday after a quick trip to New Hampshire. He’s also planning on being in Iowa the day after the caucuses, and voiced confidence he’ll finish strongly.
Romney has a solid base of support from his strong effort for the presidency four years ago, and he has quietly kept in touch with many of those who backed him last time.
“I think that Romney has a real chance to win in Iowa,” said King. “He’s built a foundation here that people from a national perspective have forgotten about, and he’s well-known here, it didn’t take long to light things up again.”
Santorum’s surge has been aided by the collapse of Michele Bachmann and Gingrich, who has been barraged by negative ads from the other candidates. Gingrich has been badly outspent on the airwaves and has almost no field organization in Iowa.
Bachmann has suffered a series of major setbacks in recent days as well: her state campaign chairman jumped ship for Paul’s campaign, leading to her accusing him of being bribed to leave. After another top Bachmann staffer defended the chairman’s actions, he was fired.
The former chairman, state Sen. Kent Sorenson, pushed back strongly. “Sadly, the values I most appreciated in Congresswoman Bachmann appear to have gone out the window in a last-minute effort to salvage what’s left of her campaign,” he said in a statement.
Perry has also struggled — his latest attacks were aimed at Santorum, showing how quickly the former Pennsylvania senator has risen in the field. But despite millions of dollars on ads, Perry has seen little movement in his poll numbers in the state.
—This story was posted at 6 a.m. and updated at 12:29 p.m.