DES MOINES, Iowa -- On the day before the Iowa caucuses, Republican voters here remain fractured. Instead of rallying around a consensus candidate, voters have retreated, with the business wing, libertarians and social conservatives each coalescing around a man who distinctly represents one of the three camps of the GOP coalition. Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum spent the day crisscrossing the state, locked in a statistical dead heat. But some two out of five voters in Iowa are still undecided.
Romney, buoyed by the destruction of two rivals he considered his biggest threat, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, bounced through four events, ratcheting up the rhetoric against President Barack Obama as the day wore on, eventually charging that Obama was creating an "entitlement society" that will "keep us from being one nation under God."
Romney has been largely unable over the course of the last year to win more than than a quarter of those surveyed in local or national polls. Moneyed interests aligned with the former Massachusetts governor, forming Super PACs that can spend unlimited amounts with limited disclosure, pummeled Romney's opponents with millions of dollars worth of negative ads, driving their numbers down. Instead of gravitating toward Romney, however, those voters have gone elsewhere, and Paul and Santorum have picked up support.
Santorum, a social conservative whose high-profile activism against gay rights has earned him an ignominious online honor, has consolidated support from evangelical voters, besting Texas Gov. Perry and Minnesota Rep. Bachmann, both of whom have damned themselves with inept campaigns. Perry spent the day targeting Santorum with online ads, seeing the former senator as his obstacle to the top tier.
Santorum's closing argument was directed at Romney, urging voters not to settle for a candidate who is merely "electable." Santorum said that even if Romney won, it would be a "Pyrrhic victory" because he wouldn't change the direction of the country.
Paul dismissed the rest of the field as "variations on the status quo" and little different, ultimately, from President Obama.
Throughout Iowa, Santorum, Paul and Romney were greeted by growing and enthusiastic crowds. Romney fed off an energy he hasn't been used to seeing. "We're going to win this thing with all of our passion and strength and do everything we can to get this campaign on the right track to go across the nation," he told a fired-up crowd in Marion.
But how much of that was interest in a last chance to see the man most likely to be the nominee -- and how much is pure Romney enthusiasm -- is hard to gauge. Romney's Des Moines headquarters was home to roughly 30 volunteers late Monday working the phones in a former Blockbuster space that was more than half empty. Three pizza boxes spoke to the lack of mouths to feed. Stacks of yard signs against the wall spoke to more Romney supply than demand. (Earlier in the day, Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake (R) stopped by the headquarters to motivate volunteers.)
Santorum's momentum in the state is undeniable. Now that it's clear he stands a reasonable chance of winning, he is quickly becoming a more appealing candidate for undecided voters lukewarm on Romney. Some specifically cite his growing popularity, which gives them more confidence that he can win and their vote will matter. Scott Schneidermann, a 43-year-old banker, said in Rock Rapids on Sunday that he was sold on Santorum after hearing him speak that day.
"I was waiting to see if he would gain any traction, and he's starting to gain some traction, so that's helpful," he said. "If I had to vote for a guy that I thought it would be most likely, I think it would be Rick Santorum."
Santorum knows his base. On Sunday, he deviated from a stump speech in Orange City to spend a third of his time elaborately discussing his stance on abortion, the audience eating it up. In Sioux City, he was introduced by a pastor and his event took on a revival feel, with repeated "amens" hollered throughout. On Monday, he and his wife broke down crying at an event in Newton.
Two weeks ago, he could fill small coffee shops. Now his events attract enough supporters for the crowds to spill over to hallways and adjoining rooms. On Saturday, an event in Pella, Iowa, moved outside into unseasonably warm weather because the room became too full.
At an event in Rock Rapids where audience members filled the chairs and the back of the room, an audience member said the crowd would have been bigger if it weren't a Sunday, when some evangelicals believe it is best to stay home.
Unbridle enthusiasm is nothing new for Ron Paul, whose crowds on Monday lived up to their reputation, cheering for opposition to the war, personal liberty, and restricting the activity of the Federal Reserve. "Not only do we want to audit the Fed, we want to make sure that we have something much better than the current Federal Reserve System," Paul said, moderating an applause line that typically calls for an "end" to the Fed.
Romney, while he'd prefer to win outright, is pleased to be in a top three that includes Paul and Santorum -- two candidates that don't have the backing of many establishment Republicans or support from the big money players who dominate the GOP fundraising world. In a war of attrition that will be fought on the airwaves rather than in diners and coffee shops, Romney has the upperhand against Paul and Santorum in a way he wouldn't have against Perry or, perhaps, Gingrich.
The financial report Santorum's campaign will release soon will be "embarrassing," Santorum said, even though he has gotten a windfall of cash in the last week. "We are not going to run a 'big' campaign," he said Monday night. "We going to keep doing it the way we've been doing it." The campaign has an ad up on tv in New Hampshire and will soon increase its buy, and he predicted that he will make a strong showing in South Carolina. But beyond there, he'll need to largely rely on grassroots support.
Seeing a chance to drive his formerly top tier rivals into the ground, Romney has gone heavily into Iowa, after having only visited eight times before this week, never spending more than two nights at a time.
"To be frank with you, we weren't counting on this back in the spring, but we're happy to be in the hunt," Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney adviser, said Monday of Romney's first-place position in the Iowa polls. "Our calendar was flexible. But based on what we were seeing and hearing we decided to invest the candidate's time this final week in Iowa."
And his backers' money.
Jon Ward, Elise Foley and Howard Fineman contributed reporting