Iowa Caucuses - Reuters - 04012012
Sheri Krause (L), a volunteer for Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, talks to caucus voters arriving at Southeast Elementary School in Ankney, Iowa. Photo by Reuters
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With most of the votes counted, Mitt Romney is tied with Rick Santorum at 25%. Ron Paul at third with 21%.

In 2008 Iowa caucuses Romney lost to Mike Huckabee with higher support - 25.19%.

 

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks to supporters, blames loss on the "millions and millions" spent on negative ads, thanks the thousands of volunteers who helped him survive the onslaught.

After congratulating Rep. Ron Paul, Gingrich attacked the Ron Paul's "very dangerous" foreign policy on Iran and Israel. There shouldn't be nuclear weapon in Iran, "period", he said. The U.S. should recognize Israel's significance to its future.

 

The former House Speaker ended his speech proclaiming: "On to New Hampshire!"

 

Candidates gave short, mostly passionate speeches summarizing their credo, stressing their credentials.

Newt Gingrich reminds Iowans of his experience helping Ronald Reagan turn the economy around and defeat the "Evil Empire."

Michele Bachmann, accompanied by her mother, speaking at the same Blackhawk county reminded the caucus goers of her social conservative bona fides – life starting at conception.

Texas Governor Rick Perry talking in Clive called for returning the country back on track, sending Washington politicians home, and making the U.S. economically strong again.

"If it will be strong economically, it will be strong militarily, and the world will respect us," Perry said

Only three candidates have a likely shot at victory - Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum - but an upset was not out of the question in the opening round of a Republican nominating contest that has been marked by volatility.

Iowa's caucuses are known more for weeding out candidates than picking the future president. Finishing in the top spot Tuesday night could provide a big boost in a state-by-state battle that could end up as the most expensive in history.

Most of the candidates have topped opinion polls at one point in a race that until recently centered on televised debates rather than on-the-ground campaigning.

Polls show Romney, the favorite of the party's business wing, in a tight race with Paul, a U.S. congressman from Texas with libertarian views, and Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who hopes to consolidate Iowa's large bloc of Christian conservatives. Romney is a former Massachusetts governor.

Many voters remain undecided. The unusual caucus process adds an element of unpredictability. Voters in Iowa gather in public meetings at hundreds of sites around the state such as schools, libraries and churches, listening to speeches touting the various candidates before casting their ballots.

"I'm paying great attention, I just can't decide," said Judy Peters, the owner of an events center where roughly 1,000 voters were due to meet. "There's bits and pieces of each candidate that I like and bits and pieces that I don't."

Outside groups associated with candidates, known as "Super PACs," have taken advantage of loosened campaign-finance rules to flood the Iowa airwaves with negative advertising.

Former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich has seen his support erode under a barrage of such attack advertisements.

"Poor Newt. I kind of feel sorry for him. He's just been savaged," said voter James Patterson, who said he plans to vote for Romney. "Somebody's really, really mad at Newt."
Gingrich said he would keep his campaign positive.

"You have a chance tonight to send a signal to America," he told voters in Cedar Falls. "You can do that by refusing to vote for anyone who has run negative ads."

More than 100,000 voters - only a small percentage of the state's electorate - are expected to gather across the midwestern state at more than 800 public spots starting at 7 p.m. CST (03:00 Israel time). Results should begin coming in within a few hours.

The weather was expected to be fairly cold, but dry, which should boost turnout.

Democrats and independent voters will be able to participate if they register as Republicans at the last minute.

Sparsely populated Iowa only yields 28 delegates of the 1,143 needed to lock up the Republican presidential nomination, and those delegates aren't actually awarded for months after Tuesday's caucuses.

Still, the stakes are high.

Romney is aiming for a win that could ease persistent doubts among conservatives about his moderate past and propel him toward clinching the nomination early. He is heavily favored to win next week's New Hampshire primary.

Surveys show Romney performs best among Republicans in head-to-head matchups with Obama in a campaign certain to focus on the economy and high unemployment.

Santorum hopes to emerge as the latest conservative alternative to Romney.

Largely consigned to the margins for most of the race, Santorum is now fending off attacks from his rivals who see him as a new threat. On Tuesday, he said Paul was behind a wave of automated phone calls that question his anti-abortion and pro-gun credentials.

"Ron Paul is disgusting," Santorum told Fox News reporters.

A win by Paul would help him extend his minimal-government stance and broaden the appeal of his campaign outside his zealous base, many of them independents, disaffected Democrats and younger voters.

Flickering hopes

Struggling rivals like Texas Governor Rick Perry and U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann are fighting for at least a fourth-place finish that could preserve their flickering hopes.

"People are looking for the one true core conservative that can take on Barack Obama and win. That's what I've demonstrated throughout the campaign," Bachmann told CNN.

The caucuses start a frenzied month for the Republican presidential hopefuls that will include a half-dozen debates in January and three more state votes -- on Jan. 10 in New Hampshire, Jan. 21 in South Carolina and Jan. 31 in Florida.

Iowa's nominating contest has traditionally cleared the field of losers and elevated surprise contenders. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee won the 2008 Republican caucuses, but fell short of the nomination. The eventual nominee, Arizona Senator John McCain, finished a distant fourth.

Obama launched his White House run with an Iowa win four years ago. This time, Obama is the only Democrat running, but the party is holding caucuses anyway and he will address caucus-goers by video on Tuesday night.

 

Iowa has an uneven record when it comes to predicting national winners. It sent Obama on his way in 2008, but eventual Republican nominee John McCain finished a distant fourth here to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The 100,000 or so voters are disproportionately white and more conservative than the overall American electorate.
Still, a victory means a wave of publicity, a likely boost in campaign contributions and a guarantee of surviving for at least a few more contests.

Candidates who do poorly may feel compelled to drop out of the race.

The caucuses' importance was underscored by the estimated $13 million in television advertising by the candidates and their supporters.

Unlike in a primary, in which voting occurs over hours, the Iowa caucuses were meetings in which Republicans gathered for an evening of politics. Each presidential candidate was entitled to have a supporter deliver a speech on his or her behalf before straw ballots were taken.

Under party rules, caucus results have no control over the allocation of Iowa's 25 delegates to the Republican National Convention. The Associated Press uses the caucus outcome to calculate the number each candidate would win if his support remained unchanged in the pre-convention months.

Romney, who finished second in Iowa in 2008 despite a costly effort, initially campaigned cautiously this time around.

But he campaigned extensively across the state in the race's final days in pursuit of a first-place finish, running as a conservative businessman with the skills to fix the economy.

The weak economy, though, was muted as an issue here. Despite areas of economic distress, the farm economy is strong. Iowa's unemployment in November was 5.7 percent, sixth lowest in the country and well below the national reading of 8.6 percent.

Santorum, Gingrich, Perry and Bachmann argued that Romney wasn't nearly conservative enough on the economy and social issues such as abortion.

Democrats watched carefully in a state that has swung between the two parties in recent presidential elections.

Obama was unopposed for his party's nomination. Even so, his re-election campaign set up eight offices across Iowa, made hundreds of thousands of calls to voters and arranged a video conference with caucus night supporters.

Obama didn't come to Iowa, but he addressed the local democrats via teleconference, and said: "It’s going to be a big battle, though. I hope you guys are geared up. I’m excited".

Asked by one participant whether he still believes in hope and change, he replied: "In some ways, I’m actually more optimistic now than when I first ran. We’ve already seen change take place. 2012 is about reminding the American people how far we’ve traveled."

President cites the end of war in Iraq and healthcare reform, as examples of his administration's successes.

"We’ve done a lot and we have a lot more to do," Obama said. "That’s why we need four more years."

The state's leadoff spot has been a fixture for decades. Democrats moved the caucuses up to early January in 1972, and Republicans followed suit four years later.