DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa's caucuses may not always pick the eventual presidential nominee, but voters this year did something more helpful to the process: They asked the kinds of tough questions about the economy and government spending that are on the minds of Republicans across the country who still have yet to vote.
In what voters described as the most wide-open, freewheeling caucuses in history, Iowa kicked off the 2012 election season Tuesday night and boosted a trio of Republicans — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas — into the top tier heading forward.
Those candidates earned their standing after months of being poked, prodded and questioned in cafes, living rooms and debates across the state.
"I think it's exactly how it should be. It's part of 'we the people,' " said Jesse Diehl, a 37-year-old who showed up to caucus at Point of Grace Church in Waukee, just west of Des Moines. "It is important enough that Iowans try very hard to do it well."
About a third of those in the entrance poll said they most wanted a candidate who could defeat President Obama, while about a quarter said their top priority was the selection of a true conservative. About one in five said the most important factor for them was backing a candidate with strong moral character.
The Iowa caucuses have a bad track record of picking the eventual presidential nominee. Only about half of the winners in contested races here go on to be the party's nominee. The state's voters are not representative of the country — only about 5 percent of its 3 million people turn out for caucuses, and they are older, whiter and more rural than the country as a whole.
This year, though, those voters seem to share the same concerns as those in the rest of the country: jobs, spending and the broader direction of the country.
It's not always that way. Iowa voters sometimes get mired in parochial issues. Ethanol subsidies were a prominent issue here in the run-up to the 2008 caucuses, but were not a major issue for the rest of the country.
But over the past year, Iowa voters have almost entirely avoided the parochial concerns and asked the big questions on the minds of voters across the country: Who has a plan to get the economy going? Can the manufacturing base be restored? Who can control spending? What can be done about illegal immigrants in the country?
A survey by The Washington Times with dozens of questions that candidates have fielded over the past month showed that spending and balanced budgets were far and away the biggest concern. Rather than just asking what the candidates plan to do, voters wanted assurances that they will take action.
That was the case with one voter last week who asked Mr. Paul for a track record and a timetable for the future.
"As a member of Congress, what have you done to reduce expenses and what is your timetable — if you're elected president — what is your timetable for reducing the budget by $1 trillion?" the man said.
Voters grappled heavily with those questions. Another man told Mr. Romney that he struggles with the issues.
"As a Republican, I feel that it's time to cut spending; as a moderate, I feel that it's not a sin to have to pay taxes," the voter said. "When you — and I'm not going to say if you're president, but when you're president — what are you going to do to take care of this so that we pay our bills and not the future generations?"
David Yepsen, who was a longtime political columnist for the Des Moines Register and now serves as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said voters here were struggling with the same questions on the minds of Republicans across the country.
"The issue for a lot of these caucus-goers is, 'Do I go with my heart, a candidate who's really pure and I love, or do I opt for somebody who I think has a chance of winning,' " Mr. Yepsen said.
Mr. Yepsen said Mr. Paul's showing here sends a signal that his military-retrenchment views resonate with a significant chunk of the GOP's voters. He also said the Iowa results will mean other candidates in the field will have to grapple with that fact.
"Regardless of what you think about Ron Paul, he's got a message that's resonating," Mr. Yepsen said. "I think he's going to do well enough, and there's enough of a presence, that it's a message that can't be ignored."
The entrance poll showed nearly two out of every five voters was a newcomer to the caucuses.
The polls also showed deep striations: Voters for whom abortion was the most important issue overwhelming supported Mr. Santorum, while Mr. Paul won a plurality of voters concerned about spending and Mr. Romney held a lead among the 42 percent of voters who told the poll they were concerned about the economy.
Mr. Romney led among suburban voters, Mr. Paul won urban voters and Mr. Santorum led in the rural vote.
Issues and geography aside, voters in Iowa said they are desperate for a champion who can beat Mr. Obama in November.
"I've never been involved before, and I feel like I'm like a lot of people who woke up and said, 'We need to get Obama out of there,' " said Becky Ervin, 62. "We need to get the economy back on track, and Obamacare really scared me. I also don't believe in spreading the wealth around — 50 percent of the country doesn't pay taxes, and that's not right. I just don't like where the country is heading."
• Paige Winfield Cunningham and Susan Crabtree contributed to this article.
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