- Associated Press - Sunday, December 25, 2011

DES MOINES, Iowa — It’s been a different presidential race in Iowa this year - quieter.

Campaign headquarters have hardly been buzzing with activity, unlike the around-the-clock nature of past contests. Candidate visits to the state have been rare, especially when compared with years when most all but moved here. And they have largely refrained from building the grass-roots armies of yesteryear, in favor of more modest on-the-ground teams of paid staffers and volunteers.

The final rush of campaigning here gets under way Monday, just a week before the Jan. 3 caucuses, and, to be sure, there will be a flurry of candidate appearances and get-out-the-vote efforts all week.

But that will belie the reality of much of 2011, a year marked by a less aggressive personal courtship of Iowans in a campaign that, instead, has largely gravitated around a series of 13 nationally televised debates, a crush of television ads and interviews on media outlets watched by many Republican primary voters.

“We just haven’t had as much face time,” Republican Party chairwoman Trudy Caviness in Wapello County said. “That’s why we’re so undecided.”

Indeed, people here simply don’t know the Republican presidential candidates that well.

Polls show Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, having lost ground and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas having risen, with both still in contention with Mitt Romney at the head of the pack. All the others competing in Iowa - Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania - are trailing.

There are a slew of reasons why the Iowa campaign is a much more muted affair than in 2008 - marked by the clash of then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who together employed almost 300 staffers in Iowa and held blockbuster rallies. This year, there is no Democratic caucus. Only Republicans are competing, and those candidates are approaching the state differently, both visiting and hiring less.

Longtime Republican activists here, who often joke that they like to meet the candidates several times before deciding, have barely seen the candidates once and no campaign has more than 20 paid staffers in the state.

All that’s partly a consequence of how technology has changed both the political and media environments in recent years. Campaigns now can more precisely - and cheaply - target their pitches to voters from afar, sending personalized emails and YouTube video messages from the candidates to voters directly, and more campaign outreach is being handled by volunteers and through central national websites.

The nominal GOP front-runner for most of the year, Mr. Romney has been far less aggressive in cultivating support in Iowa than in his failed bid of 2008. He’s only spent 10 days in the state this year, compared with 77 days four years ago, in an attempt to lower expectations in the leadoff state, where evangelical conservatives have harbored doubts about Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, in light of his Mormon faith and changed positions on some social issues.

Mr. Paul, the Texas congressman, has been focused more on building a national following than being a one-state candidate. Mr. Gingrich only became a serious contender in the state a few weeks ago. And, until recently, he didn’t have the money or manpower to launch a full-scale Iowa campaign, meaning more sporadic visits and a smaller team.

Those who have been struggling to gain traction - and who lack the money of better-funded, better-known rivals - are turning to old-fashioned retail campaigning in hopes of wooing voters the traditional way. Mrs. Bachmann is in the midst of a bus tour that has her crisscrossing the state. Mr. Santorum, who never has broken out of the back of the pack, is betting that a year of one-on-one campaigning in all 99 counties in the state will pay off in the end.

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