Level pegging for top three in Iowa polling

REPUBLICANS in Iowa will kick off the voting in the first caucus of the US presidential elections tonight, with recent polls putting all of the top three candidates within two per cent of one another.

Public Policy Polling put Ron Paul, once viewed as a wildcard candidate, in the lead yesterday, at 20 per cent. Mitt Romney came in at 19 per cent and Rick Santorum, who has come from outside to ride a surge in support, scored 18 per cent.

Another well-regarded poll for the Des Moines Register, however, put Romney ahead on 24 per cent, with Paul at 22 per cent and Santorum on 15 per cent.

Other candidates who were previously riding high and flush with media attention, such as Newt Gingrich and Michelle Bachmann, have fallen by the wayside in recent polls.

Gingrich has said he will stay in the race even if he bombs in Iowa, however, in the hopes of regaining ground. He blamed a run of negative state TV ads by rivals for his diminishing chances.

“I would say we will do respectably despite all the effort, particularly by Romney, to drive us out of the race,” he said, criticising Romney for being a “Massachusetts moderate”.

All those registered as Republicans will gather to discuss the candidates in caucuses and vote by secret ballot from this evening, Iowa time.

Candidates spent the holiday criss-crossing the state to give speeches. Although the result will not be decided before 19 states vote on “super Tuesday” in early March, the Iowa result can have a major impact on publicity and donations.

The race has been marked by dramatic moments that have seen leading candidates crash out of the race.

Notably, Herman Cain, a former central banker in Kansas, was forced out after being dogged by sex scandals and forgetting the government’s policy on Libya during a video interview.

Former front-runner Rick Perry also dealt a blow to his chances by forgetting which three government agencies he planned to abolish during a live TV debate.

He was mocked by rival Ron Paul, who proposes the abolition of most federal government agencies on the grounds that they are not constitutional.

MITT ROMNEY
Ex-Massachusetts governor
ROMNEY is expected to perform strongly in the key Iowa poll and has described himself as “pretty confident of a good night” despite not campaigning hard in the state until last week.

He looks at ease on the campaign trail but the suave former governor has so far lacked the popular appeal of presidents Obama, George W. Bush and Clinton, perhaps explaining why his previous bid for the nomination failed at the hands of John McCain.

Romney’s speeches have been solid rather then spectacular but David Kochel, his top aide in Iowa, says: “He might be better in the boardroom than the beer tent, but he knows how to work a room, and it shows.”

It is not yet clear whether Romney’s success in the boardroom – he netted a fortune after helping to set up and run private equity house Bain Capital – will work for or against him. He can portray himself as the man who knows how to cut America’s vast budget deficit but is open to accusations of being out of touch. This criticism only increased when he casually offered a $10,000 bet to opponent Rick Perry in an argument over what Romney wrote about healthcare in his book No Apologies.

RON PAUL Congressman
PAUL is considered a godfather of the low tax Tea Party movement but remains an outside contender. This is his third bid for the White House and he only managed fifth place in the Iowa caucuses in 2008.

Last week he mounted a fightback against allegations he was anti-Israeli, after a former aide claimed Paul wanted to abolish the Jewish state, and described the nation as an “important friend” of the US.

RICK SANTORUM Ex-senator
A FORMER senator for Pennsylvania, Santorum has been a low-key candidate in most polls so far but worked hard to raise his profile in Iowa and seen his popularity quadruple in the past month. Santorum, a Catholic and social conservative, has pledged to cut public spending and simplify and lower taxes. His Made in America plan would cut corporation tax to 17.5 per cent. However, he would not cut defence spending and wants a harder-line foreign policy.

RICK PERRY Texas governor
PERRY is another one to have seen his poll numbers slump after a series of weak debating performances including a “brain freeze” on television last month.

He has a strong record on job creation in Texas, however, and has ramped up his social conservatism on the expectation it will go down well in Iowa.

He has also criticised gays in the military and taken a harder line on abortion in a bid to win over the state’s large evangelical Christian constituency.

NEWT GINGRICH Former House speaker
GINGRICH has vowed to fight on despite plunging from top to an average of fourth place in the Iowa polls. At the weekend he claimed it would be a “victory” simply to stay in the race after his campaign was hit by a series of hostile adverts funded mainly by Romney supporters. Gingrich, a former House of Representatives speaker, has survived one political “death” already when many of his staff quit last summer amid criticisms of his campaign management. The gaffe-prone Washington insider says he has changed, however, after cheating on his first and second wives. He has since converted to Catholicism and married again.

THE ONE TO BEAT: BARACK OBAMA President
AS Republicans compete to tear strips off each other, the President can stay where he likes it – aloof from the fray. He will eventually have to join in, however, with his handling of the economy and healthcare reforms likely to be at the heart of his battle for re-election.

The Obama presidency has so far struggled to match the soaring rhetoric which characterised his time on the campaign trail four years ago, but he has several key advantages – incumbency, which has given him a chance to raise nearly $1bn already for his fighting fund, an economy which is finally showing signs of picking up and a populist banker-bashing approach not available to his Republican rivals, who fear it could alienate a key supporter base.

Neither should it be forgotten that it was under Obama that the US found and killed Osama bin Laden.

By Peter Edwards