GOP candidates vie for voters’ trust in fluid Iowa

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — In the kickoff contest of the 2012 presidential race, Republican candidates argued up to Tuesday’s finish line in Iowa over which candidate is a conservative that voters can trust and who they can count on to defeat President Barack Obama.

With large numbers of likely caucus-goers still undecided or willing to change their minds as the Iowa race wound down, Mitt Romney, a confident-but-cautious front-runner, said he was poised to claim “the kind of send-off we need for a pretty long campaign season.” Backing off earlier declarations he’d win outright, he told MSNBC he expected to be “among the top group.”

It was a fluid race that has elevated and then discarded a head-snapping assortment of front-runners. And many of Iowa’s GOP voters still hadn’t settled on a favorite candidate just hours before they cast the first ballots of the 2012 presidential contest.

“It might come down to the speeches at the caucuses,” said Phil Ubben, of Sioux City. “I want to support someone who can go all the way and defeat the Democrats in November.”

The candidates pinned their final hopes on such voters.

** FILE ** Volunteers Jason Bassett, of Des Moines, Iowa, left, and Mark Hancock, of Windsor Locks, Conn., right, work at Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign headquarters, Friday, Dec. 30, 2011, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

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** FILE ** Volunteers Jason Bassett, of Des Moines, Iowa, left, and ... more >

“I think anybody can come in first,” Newt Gingrich said on CBS’ “The Early Show.” That was most likely wishful thinking for the former House speaker, who has lost momentum after surging to the front of the GOP pack just weeks ago.

Training their sights on the pack leader, Gingrich, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and other GOP rivals questioned Romney’s conservative credentials and predicted Obama would, to use Gingrich’s words, “tear him apart.”

The two who appeared most likely to challenge Romney for victory in Iowa were Santorum and libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas — neither of whom is likely to present as serious a challenge to Romney over the long haul as would Gingrich or Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who also has fallen back.

Santorum, appearing on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” said Iowans are “looking for the candidate they can trust, and that’s why we’re moving up in the polls.”

On Tuesday night, Republicans will gather in living rooms, high school gymnasiums and local libraries for caucuses that start the process of picking the GOP nominee. In each precinct caucus, voters will urge their friends and neighbors to support a preferred candidate. For all of the attention paid to the caucuses, they are essentially a nonbinding straw poll that awards no delegates. Republicans do that at county and district conventions later in the year.

Twenty-five delegates are at stake in Iowa, out of 1,144 needed to win the Republican nomination — what Romney called “the whole enchilada.”

Obama isn’t ceding the stage to the Republicans while they sort that out: The president, fresh off a 10-day Hawaiian vacation, made plans to host an evening web chat with supporters in Iowa as the caucuses were under way.

For all the talk of trust and electability, candidates in both parties know the economy is sure to be the central issue this election year: Obama was traveling to Cleveland on Wednesday for an event focused on the economy. Romney, for his part, said he’s running to get the country back on track after presidential mistakes that have left “a lot of people out of work.”

Most polls in recent days have put Romney and Paul atop the GOP field in Iowa, with Santorum in third and gaining ground. More than a third of all potential caucus-goers said they could yet change their minds. Perry, Gingrich and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann all trailed.

Romney faces the same challenge he did in 2008: winning over a conservative base that’s uncomfortable with his moderate past. In 2008, socially conservative voters united behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, denying Romney a first-place finish and contributing to his eventual defeat.

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