Mitt Romney on course for Iowa boost to White House bid

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney appears on course for a narrow win in the Iowa caucuses, despite a late surge from right-wing candidates.

The moderate conservative held off his rivals in the latest round of polling, indicating that he is in line for a morale boosting early victory in the race for a Republican presidential nod.

But the result is by no means certain. The run-up to the first voting state has been a fluid affair, with a succession of “anyone but Romney” candidates taking up strong positions only to then fade away again.

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The latest snapshot of Republican voter intention in Iowa suggests that the 64-year-old moderate Republican could face a challenge from either Ron Paul, a libertarian-leaning Texas Congressman, or Rick Santorum, a social conservative from the party’s evangelical Christian wing.

A Des Moines Register poll released at the weekend put Mr Romney on 24 per cent, with Dr Paul on 22 per cent and Mr Santorum of 15 per cent.

But responses from the later stages of the four-day survey found that Mr Santorum had overtaken Dr Paul, and was now fighting it out with the former Massachusetts governor to take the state. The Iowa caucuses are keenly watched as an early indicator of who will succeed in the candidacy race. Failure to make an impact can severely hamper a candidate’s chance going forward, whilst a strong showing can lend momentum to a campaign.

Conventional wisdom has it that there are “three tickets out of Iowa”, with those falling below third place finding it hard to recover from a poor start.

The state tends to bend towards right wing Republicans. As such, a victory for Mr Romney will put him in good stead going into the next two state battles – New Hampshire and South Carolina – which traditionally favour more moderates candidates.

Indeed, he appears to have an unassailable lead in New Hampshire, which will hold it primary vote next week. Mr Romney has the support of 41 per ecnt of likely Republican voters in the state, polls say, far ahead of his nearest rival. On the final full day before Iowans go to the polls, Mr Romney appeared to be looking beyond the primaries towards a potential run-off against Barack Obama.

“This is a contest about the economy and about the budget and about foreign affairs, but it is also an election that is bigger than that,” he said whilst campaigning at a fairground in Davenport, Iowa. He added that it was a battle for “the soul of America”.

Republican pollster Dan Judy believes that a victory in Iowa – no matter how small – will put Romney into a commanding position.

He said: “Romney has such an advantage in terms of money and organisation. If he can squeak out a win in Iowa – even by a point or two – and then go on to win New Hampshire by 10 to 15 points and South Carolina, then at that point there will not be a great deal of enthusiasm for any other campaign.”

“After a crazy year, it could be over before it begins.”

Mr Romney – who sits on an estimated personal wealth of around $200 million (£129m) – has the largest campaign fund of all the candidates.

In recent weeks, he has used it to finance an ad campaign that appears to have headed off a resurgent Newt Gingrich.

The former house speaker was vying for a top two finish in Iowa before seeing his numbers drop dramatically in the face of negative campaigning by Mr Romney and other candidates.

The fact that his popularity has held steady in Iowa – consistently around the 25 per cent mark – suggests that Mr Romney’s Mormon faith and apparent flip-flopping on abortion and gay marriage has not played against him to the degree some had expected.

But it may also go some way to explain the rise in popularity for Mr Santorum, as those on the religious right of the party coalesce around a candidate more in tune with their social conservative agenda.