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Just days before Iowa caucuses, GOP presidential field is still unsettled

By Jim Acosta, CNN Political Correspondent
updated 7:32 PM EST, Tue December 27, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A week before the caucuses, Iowa Republicans say there isn't a clear leader
  • Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are at the top, but Rick Perry is gaining
  • Gingrich has gone after Paul, questioning his seriousness as presidential material

Des Moines, Iowa (CNN) -- Forget all of the complaints about the Iowa caucuses. It may be good for everyone else that the Hawkeye State is going first.

With a week and counting until the caucuses on January 3, one of the state's top Republican leaders is amazed by Iowa's most unsettled field of candidates so close to the finish line.

"It's completely unprecedented to have a field and a cycle that has been this unpredictable, this turbulent late in the process," Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn told CNN.

Tim Albrecht, the Twitter-active spokesman for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, is also surprised.

"I have never seen this level of undecided voters this late in the process. It's a crazy year in that regard," Albrecht said.

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Betting on candidates

Just think of Iowa as the GOP's Midwestern mirror, reflecting back an image of uncertainty.

Simply put, there is no front-runner in this state. In the most recent Iowa poll from American Research Group, three candidates are virtually tied for the lead, with Rep. Ron Paul at 21%, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at 20% and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 19%.

Most of the Republican candidates are in Iowa or on their way, canvassing the state in custom buses and rallying their supporters at town hall meetings. Gingrich started his day in Dubuque, while Michele Bachmann continued a 99-county tour in Council Bluffs. Romney is expected to launch his own bus tour in eastern Iowa on Wednesday.

One favorite in the upcoming caucuses, Paul, is viewed as unacceptable by a huge chunk of Republicans, according to the latest CNN-ORC nationwide poll.

Post-Christmas poll shows Iowa deadlock

Meanwhile, Gingrich, in an interview Tuesday with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, spoke to those voters and hit Paul hard, saying the Texas congressman has a "record of systemic avoidance of reality."

The other likely victors, Romney and Gingrich, are seeing their past moderate positions on a whole host of issues laid bare by bloggers and critics every day.

That leaves the conservative wing of the GOP field: Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Bachmann. The problem is Santorum, Perry and Bachmann are splitting what would otherwise be almost a winning hand.

"There's the Libertarian Primary, which Ron Paul is going to win. And then you got the moderate primary, which Gingrich and Romney are scrumming for. And you got three folks who are running as strong conservatives," Santorum said at one of his events this week.

Still, Santorum declared the end may be near for him if he doesn't do well in Iowa.

"If I finish dead last behind the pack, I'm going to pack up and go home," Santorum said on Iowa radio station WHO.

One potential game changer is last week's revelations about Paul's incendiary political newsletters, which were distributed under his name in the 1980s and 1990s. The newsletters could be damaging enough to bring down the libertarian's poll numbers. Paul claims he never read many of them.

Ron Paul pressed on newsletters

Gingrich, who has all but abandoned his pledge to stay positive, has pointed to the newsletters to question Paul's electability.

Gingrich hinted he would not be able to support Paul as the Republican nominee.

I think Ron Paul's views are totally outside the mainstream of virtually every decent American.
Newt Gingrich

"I think Ron Paul's views are totally outside the mainstream of virtually every decent American," Gingrich said on CNN's "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer."

Paul supporters could look to another anti-Washington crusader and Texan, who is spending heavily in the state. Perry and a political action committee supporting him have spent nearly $2 million on advertising in Iowa so far. And he thinks he has the right message for small government conservatives: Turn Capitol Hill into a part-time job for federal lawmakers.

Given the fact that members of Congress have roughly an 11% approval rating, it may be an effective ploy.

"I want you to answer this question -- why should you settle for anything less than an authentic conservative who will fight for your views and values without an apology," Perry asked a crowd in Iowa on Tuesday.

Why should you settle for anything less than an authentic conservative who will fight for your views and values without an apology?
Rick Perry

The other potential X-factor is the escalating war of words between Gingrich and Romney.

Gingrich's campaign now refers to Romney as "Mitt the Massachusetts Moderate" in e-mails to reporters.

One such e-mail included a link to a local news video clip from Romney's 2002 campaign for governor. In the video, Romney tells a reporter he's "not a partisan Republican."

"I'm someone who is moderate and that my views are progressive," Romney told NECN, a New England cable news channel.

Romney is countering that blast from the past with a new ad promising a "conservative agenda" in the White House.

Romney also tweaked Gingrich's comparison of his failure to make the ballot in the Virginia primary to a Pearl Harbor attack.

"I think it's more like Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory," Romney said, referring to the '50s sitcom where the red-headed comedian has trouble keeping up with candy on a conveyer belt.

Part of the reason why Iowans are unsure about a front-runner might have something to do with the changing nature of the modern political campaign.

Iowa Republican leader Strawn says the GOP candidates have spent less time in the state than in years past.

Filling that void, Strawn says, are super political action committees airing attack ads.

"We want to get the decision right, but also we haven't had as much opportunity to kind of kick the tires on these candidates as we have in caucuses past," Strawn says.

CNN's Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report

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