DES MOINES, Iowa — Mitt Romney has a slim lead in the latest Des Moines Register Iowa poll, released Saturday evening, but Ron Paul is close and Rick Santorum is surging.
The results came as Republican presidential candidates spent the last day of 2011 Saturday making their closing arguments to curious, often uncertain voters as the race remained fluid. In the Iowa poll, taken Tuesday through Friday, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, led with 24 percent of likely caucus-goers. Next was Paul, a Texas congressman, at 22 percent followed by Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, at 15 percent.
Trailing were former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, 12 percent; Texas Gov. Rick Perry, 11 percent, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, 7 percent.
But results Thursday and Friday only told a different story. While Romney still had 24 percent, Santorum was up to 21 percent, while Paul sank to 18 percent. The poll capped a frenetic day of campaigning. Gingrich blasted the Obama administration, saying the Justice Department was trying to "steal elections." Romney and Santorum made last-ditch pitches to rally support. Perry's campaign said he'd be heading straight to South Carolina, which holds the first primary in the South Jan. 21, instead of going straight to New Hampshire, site of the next GOP test Jan. 10. Saturday, Perry tore into Santorum for aiding in the "fleecing the American taxpayer."
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Paul went home to Texas for the holiday weekend, and Bachmann rallied voters from her Urbandale, Iowa, headquarters.
Santorum stoked the most curiosity Saturday. Until this week, he had been criss-crossing the state almost unnoticed by voters and the media, as he visited all the state's 99 counties and held nearly 360 town hall meetings.
But in the last few days, he's become the darling of many in the state's influential evangelical Christian community, especially as Bachmann faded.
Santorum's loftier status made him a prime target for Perry, who is competing for the same slice of the Iowa electorate. He blasted Santorum during an appearance at the Gigglin' Goat Restaurant in downtown Boone
"I think the world of Rick Santorum, but we've got some real differences when it comes to fiscal issues. The differences couldn't be clearer," Perry said.
Too often, Perry said, Santorum backed federal spending on unnecessary local projects. That, said Perry, is nothing more than "pork barrel spending where senators scratch each others' backs...it's about fleecing the American taxpayer."
The crowd, like most others in Iowa these days, was split between candidate supporters and undecided voters.
Sarah Walker, 34, a Fort Dodge a certified medical assistant and the mother of a 10-year-old boy, says she's likely to support Perry and welcomes his promises to slash government spending.
"I like Gov. Perry, I think he'll be a wonderful leader," she said. "I like the idea of smaller government."
But Harvey Harrison, 51, a Boone customer service representative, said he's trying to decide between Bachmann and Paul.
He liked Paul, he said, because of the congressman's opposition to U.S. involvement in foreign entanglements.
"He wants to take us back to how the founding fathers felt about foreign relations," Harrison said, but added, "Right now I'm still looking."
Santorum, appearing in Indianola at about the same hour, did not engage Perry, instead tackling the issue wavering voters often mention: That he can't beat President Barack Obama.
Santorum urged potential caucus-goers at a library to ignore national pundits about who can or cannot win in a general election.
"Trust you judgment and lead," he told a room where supporters slightly outnumbered media members. "Lead and be bold. If you do, you will change the tenor of this race."
"We'd love for you to be helpful as caucus captains," Santorum added. "We need you to be there for us ...If you're willing to sign up, we'd be very grateful. I know all the campaigns say they need your help, they're lying. I need your help."
Santorum's campaign also launched a new television ad saying he had the best chance of beating Obama. The ad, which will also run next week in New Hampshire, stresses his strong conservative record and moral values.
Gingrich, despite fading poll numbers, kept plugging away, starting his day in western Iowa.
He sharply criticized the Justice Department's recent decision to block a South Carolina law requiring voters to show certain identification before being allowed to vote. Justice maintained the law could make it harder for thousands of minority voters to go to the polls.
Gingrich said "you have to ask, why is it that they are desperate to retain the ability to steal elections and I think that's what it comes down to."
Gingrich also got an Iowa boost from influential conservative Des Moines radio talk show host Steve Deace.
"After offering every candidate in the race the chance to show they understand the gravity of this issue, Gingrich is the only one who has demonstrated he does, and can also use the bully pulpit of the presidency to educate Americans on the need to return to the rule of law," Deace said.
Romney began his day in New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first presidential primary Jan. 10. Romney has been far ahead in statewide polls there, but is trying to assure he maintains his lead should someone like Santorum pull a surprise in the Iowa caucus and carry that momentum into New Hampshire.
Romney visited the Old Salt restaurant in Hampton, N.H., flanked by two of the state's veteran Republicans, former Gov. John Sununu and former Sen. Judd Gregg. Romney talked mostly about President Barack Obama, saying history would judge him as a "footnote."
Someone in the audience shouted a question concerning why Romney has not released his tax returns. Romney's campaign has said he does not plan to release the returns at this time.
Romney returned to Iowa later Saturday and plans a series of rallies throughout the state over the next three days.
(Dave Montgomery of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed)
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