DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Republican presidential candidates vying to challenge President Barack Obama next year are spending millions on television commercials and making final appeals to voters as they count down to the country's first nominating contest in Iowa on Jan. 3.
The Midwestern state holds the country's first nominating contest on Jan. 3 — statewide precinct caucus meetings. They likely will winnow the seven-person field and shape the coming six-month string of state-by-state primary elections and caucuses leading up to the Republican National Convention that officially names a candidate in August.
Obama is vulnerable because of national dissatisfaction with the wobbly economy that has been extremely slow to pull out of the Great Recession. But the tangle of Republicans vying for the nomination to challenge the president in November — and fundamental splits over ideology — have left the party divided.
Candidates and allied groups have spent more than $12 million on television commercials to air through caucus day next Tuesday.
National front-runner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is disliked and not trusted by conservative Republicans who have thrown their support behind a series of other candidates whose policy promises are more palatable to them.
But each of those candidates, Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, businessman Herman Cain and now former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich have all grabbed support and quickly risen in the polls before losing steam under closer scrutiny by voters and the news media.
Most of Romney's rivals preceded him into the state during the day at the end of a holiday lull, seeking support in caucuses that are likely to dispatch one or more of them to a hasty campaign exit.
Attacking in waves, Romney's Republican presidential rivals cast him as unreliable on central conservative issues such as taxes and gay marriage — both of which they dislike — in the final, intensifying phase of a costly Iowa caucus campaign.
"I've been a conservative all my life," said Gingrich. He called Romney a "Massachusetts moderate ... who campaigned to the left of Teddy Kennedy."
Perry, setting out on a bus tour of Iowa in hopes of resurrecting his once-promising candidacy, touted his own conservative credentials. "My idea of gun control? Use both hands," said Perry.
Romney looked past his Republican rivals as he projected the confidence of a front-runner. He accused Obama of "misguided policies and weak leadership" in the White House.
"Mr. President, you have now had your moment. We have seen the results. And now, Mr. President, it is our time," Romney said. Aides added that by design, he spoke not far from where Obama campaigned four years ago this week en route to an Iowa caucus victory that set him on the road to the presidency.
In Dubuque, the first stop of a bus tour through the state, Gingrich said his own economic proposal for an optional flat-tax as well as the elimination of all capital gains taxes was a more pro-growth approach than Romney's prescription.
In a radio interview, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said Romney had "sort of gotten a pass'" when he said in a recent debate he had done all he could as Massachusetts governor to block same-sex marriages in the state.
Recent soundings suggest Texas Rep. Ron Paul is Romney's likeliest threat in Iowa. He is due in the state on Wednesday.
A conservative with libertarian leanings, Paul commands strong allegiance from his own supporters but appears to have little potential to expand his appeal and emerge as a serious challenger for the nomination.
Unlike his rivals and most Republican voters, he says the federal government should have no authority to ban abortion.
And Paul was alone among the Republican contenders in a recent debate in saying the United States should not consider pre-emptive military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, an issue of significant importance to Israel. He warned against moving too quickly, adding, "That's how we got into that useless war in Iraq."
Romney, making his second run for the nomination, has relied on a well-funded and disciplined organization, generally strong debate performances and deep-pocketed allies to keep his balance as others have risen to challenge him and fallen back.
According to one tally of television advertising in the state, the Massachusetts governor and a super PAC run by supporters have spent $3.7 million combined on ads through Jan. 3
The total was exceeded only by a combined $5.5 million for Perry and a super PAC set up by his supporters.
As if previewing the themes of a general election campaign, Romney said that in his campaign travels, "I've heard stories of The Great Obama Recession, of families getting by on less, of planned-for retirement replaced by jobs at minimum wage."
He said that "Gone is the 'hope and change' candidate of Davenport. ... Instead the campaigner-in-chief divides Americans, engages in class warfare and resorts to distortion and demagoguery."
Whatever the outcome, there was a recognition that for some, Iowa might simultaneously be the first and last test of the campaign.
In the state where caucuses propelled Obama toward the White House in 2008, the president's campaign organization pointed toward Election Day next Nov. 6.
With offices in eight Iowa cities, officials said Obama's re-election campaign has placed hundreds of thousands of phone calls since April to potential supporters.
Associated Press writers David Espo and Chuck Babington in Des Moines, Tom Beaumont in Mason City, Philip Elliott in Council Bluffs, Shannon McCaffrey in Dubuque and Steve Peoples in New Hampshire contributed to this report.Tags: