Polk City, Iowa - Iowa Republicans will gather Tuesday night at fire stations, schools, libraries and community centers across the state to vote their choice for the GOP nomination to oppose President Barack Obama this fall. Yet even at this last minute, the outcome remains highly unpredictable.
In this first presidential voting of 2012, polls suggest that three candidates are likely to finish in the top tier: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. But legions of undecided voters make the final finish hard to handicap.
The Iowa caucus traditionally winnows the field. Six major Republican hopefuls are competing Tuesday, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are struggling for support.
Since the modern Iowa GOP caucus began in 1976, only three eventual nominees have won — Gerald Ford in 1976, Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000. But the caucuses helped shape the field, and John McCain in 2008 has been the only nominee to finish worse than third, and he was fourth by a slim margin after making only a minimal effort here.
Tuesday, a host of questions loom: Will Santorum, who in recent days has become a favorite of the state's powerful evangelical community, do well enough to win or at least become a serious contender?
Can Romney, who Monday reiterated his view that he is best positioned to beat Obama, convince wary voters to shed their doubts about him?
Will Paul, with his enthusiastic base of young people and fed-up voters, be able to expand his support?
The answers were not clear Monday.
Santorum began his campaign day at the Rising Sun Cafe in Polk City, about half an hour outside Des Moines. Of the nine questions he took from the audience, four came from undecided voters.
Sue Koch, a Cumming homemaker, went to a Romney rally Friday in West Des Moines, but was disappointed. "I didn't hear much other than his stump speech," she said.
She came to Polk City intrigued by Santorum, who has risen from poll invisibility to sudden stardom in recent days. Koch asked Santorum about health care. "I want the freedom to choose my own doctor," she said.
Santorum maintained, "I wouldn't be running for president if not for Obamacare," the 2010 federal health care law that requires nearly everyone to obtain coverage by 2014.
Obama, said Santorum, "thinks you're not smart enough" to deal with your own health care issues. Afterward, Koch said: "I liked what I heard."
Others were reluctant to make their choice final. Gary Heuertz, mayor of Polk City, said he was "really leaning hard to Santorum," but would not rule out a vote for Bachmann.
Iowa Republicans will gather at 1,774 locations beginning at 7 P.M. CST. Candidate representatives usually speak, and anyone who will be 18 years old by Election Day in November can then vote. Caucuses usually last about an hour.
Santorum Monday tried to position himself as a staunch conservative who is the only candidate to win statewide office in a swing state.
Romney has labeled Santorum a career politician. Santorum Monday gently struck back, saying, "One of my opponents has said he has executive experience...we're not looking for a chief executive officer...we're looking for a commander-in-chief."
He also only vaguely engaged Perry, who has been criticizing Santorum as not a true fiscal conservative. Perry points to Santorum's support for raising the debt ceiling while a senator.
Santorum called Perry "a good guy and a nice man. I know he's hammering away at me. That's what he has to do."
Santorum was more direct when, at the Hotel Pattee in Perry, Iowa, he was asked about Paul, who has argued against foreign entanglements.
"The bottom line is this world would be left to those who want to do ill to America," Santorum protested.
Paul conducted a whistle stop tour through the state. With son Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in tow, the candidate stressed his major points of cutting the size and influence of the federal government and reducing the U.S. military's role overseas.
"This is what the vote is about tomorrow," Paul told a Des Moines hotel ballroom full of supporters, students and curious out-of-towners. "Are we sick and tired of the expansion of government, the endless spending and the deficit, doing the things they weren't supposed to do and forgetting about the things they should be doing?"
While Paul's backers are believed to be the most committed, there were undecideds in his crowd, too.
"A lot of the candidates are saying similar things," said Jeana Van Boorst of Pella, as she listened to Paul. "He (Paul) definitely has a plan. But I feel like he's maybe a little more liberal on some his social views than I am." Still, she said, Paul and Santorum were her top candidates.
"Santorum is probably number one because I feel like he's a real conservative candidate who has the religious background that I'm aligned with," she said.
In eastern Iowa, Romney aimed his barbs at Obama Monday, pressing the idea that he was ready to eloquently run against the president.
Perry and Gingrich, who in recent weeks have gone from poll leaders to the bottom tier, also travelled the state. Gingrich railed against negative ads — many by backers of Romney. The ads, Gingrich said, have "nothing to do with governing America and solving our problems."
Bachmann, who won the August Iowa straw poll but has faded since, began Monday running her first TV ad of the campaign. It cites her Iowa roots; Bachmann was born in Waterloo.
(Dave Montgomery of The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram contributed to this article.)