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Iowa caucuses launch intensified stage of GOP campaign

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, flanked by staff members, greets Iowa voters at a campaign event at the Temple for Performing Arts in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 3.

 

The 2012 Republican presidential nominee won't be crowned Tuesday in Iowa.  But when Iowans show up this evening for the state's caucuses — the first nominating contest of the 2012 GOP primary — they'll be setting the parameters for a campaign that, after months of anticipation, is only beginning in earnest.

The latest polls, one released as recently as Saturday, have made clear that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum compose the top tier of candidates vying for a win Tuesday night in Iowa.

But victory in the Hawkeye State is measured just as much against expectations as it is in raw tallies of support. That sentiment is fueling Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann in this campaign; each are hoping that a better-than-expected showing will revitalize their campaigns.

PhotoBlog: Santorum gets used to a little more attention

Perhaps the most-closely-scrutinized outcome will be how Romney, whose presidential campaign was felled in 2008 by a poor finish in these caucuses, performs this time around. He has kept an arm's length distance from some of the contest's proudest traditions (including the Ames Straw Poll in August), only to make a late play for the state this fall after no other candidate had managed to coalesce conservative support.

Romney has been the putative frontrunner for the duration of this cycle, and his campaign (sometimes with the help of a deep-pocketed super PAC, Restore Our Future) has managed to swat away any challenges to his status as the campaign's leader. They hope that a win — or top-tier finish — in Iowa tonight, combined with a win in next week's New Hampshire primary, where Romney leads by wide margins, will all but clinch the nomination.

PhotoBlog: Scenes from Caucus Day in Iowa

But this primary cycle has been marked by, if nothing else, a topsy-turvy search by Republican voters for a conservative alternative to Romney. And there are growing signs that the former Massachusetts governor should brace for his first sustained burst of scrutiny following Tuesday's caucuses.

Gingrich, who tumbled from frontrunner status in Iowa just a month ago after suffering a wave of attacks from the Romney super PAC, presaged this new level of competition this morning.

When asked in an interview with CBS News if Romney were a liar, Gingrich flatly responded, "Yes."

"Here's a Massachusetts moderate who has tax-paid abortions in 'Romneycare,' puts Planned Parenthood in 'Romneycare,' raises hundreds of millions of dollars of taxes on businesses, appoints liberal judges to appease Democrats, and wants the rest of us to believe somehow he's magically a conservative," the former speaker said on The Early Show. "I just think he ought to be honest with the American people and try to win as the real Mitt Romney, not try to invent a poll-driven, consultant-guided version that goes around with talking points, and I think he ought to be candid. I don't think he's being candid and that will be a major issue."

Mitt Romney tells Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski he thinks he'll finish in the "top group" in Iowa.

And Santorum, who seems to poised to win the virtual game of musical chairs among candidates in Iowa positioning themselves as the anti-Romney candidate, has been similarly emboldened to go after Romney.

"This has been a debate about health care … the signature issue is Obamacare," the former senator said on ABC this morning. "And we cannot put up a presidential candidate who is in, basically, in the same place as Barack Obama on government-run health care."

For his part, Romney's largely shrugged off attacks.

"That's just fine — that's the nature of a campaign. I expect people to come after me, and if I do well here, I'll have a target painted on me," he said Tuesday on MSNBC's Morning Joe. "And if I can't stand up to that, I shouldn't be the nominee."

First Read: Iowa doesn't have much effect on N.H. except when it does

But if a Romney victory tonight could move the former Massachusetts governor closer to the nomination, better-than-expected finishes by some of his Republican foes could threaten to drag out the primary into an expensive, bloody contest — a development which Democrats would no doubt enjoy.

Paul is leaning on a somewhat unconventional cocktail of libertarian Republicans, young caucus-goers and anti-establishment minded Republicans to win in Iowa. His campaign, both in 2008 and 2012, has been notable for its intense enthusiasm from supporters and prolific fundraising. And in Iowa, where the strength of a candidate's organization typically correlates with a strong performance, Paul is hoping his well-organized supporters can help secure victory.

Santorum and Paul have signaled they'll each head to New Hampshire after tonight's finish (early indicators of which won't emerge, since the caucuses all begin at 8:00 p.m. ET). Gingrich, who said yesterday that he doesn't expect to win in Iowa, will also head to New Hampshire.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who's skipped Iowa, is also competing in New Hampshire.

PhotoBlog: Huntsman skips Iowa to focus on New Hampshire

Perry, meanwhile, will head to South Carolina. After having suffered from a tumble in the polls associated with his failure to remember during a debate the third of three federal agencies he'd pledged to eliminate, the Texas governor refocused his campaign to target Iowa's evangelical voters. He's within striking distance of finishing fourth, according to the Des Moines Register and NBC News-Marist polls published last week.

And Bachmann, the winner of  the Ames Straw Poll, is also heading to South Carolina after Iowa. She's hoping to avoid a disappointing finish, though, that could all but cripple her campaign. She already suffered the resignation of her political director last week, which followed the defection of her Iowa campaign chairman to the Paul campaign.

But for Romney, the candidate who's leaned most on divisions among conservatives to eke out primary victories, the more of his competitors who stay in the race through South Carolina — the state whose primary has predicted the eventual nominee since 1980 — the better.

Confident, the Romney campaign has already started running ads in the Palmetto State, and plans a brief swing through South Carolina overnight Thursday and Friday morning. And in another sign that his campaign's focused on the long game, Romney made his first ad buy on Tuesday in Florida, the state whose major primary follows South Carolina this year.