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Romney leads Paul in Iowa poll, Santorum surges

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Sun, 1 Jan 2012 02:33 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Romney leads Paul in final Register poll in Iowa

* Last weekend to campaign ahead of Tuesday's Iowa caucuses

* A top 3 finish key for Republican presidential hopefuls (Adds details, quotes)

By John Whitesides and Steve Holland

DES MOINES, Iowa, Dec 31 (Reuters) - Republican Mitt Romney narrowly leads rival Ron Paul in Iowa three days before the state kicks off the party's 2012 presidential nominating race, according to a Des Moines Register poll released on Saturday.

The closely watched poll, which has a strong track record in Iowa races, showed Rick Santorum surging past Newt Gingrich into third place in a fluid battle where 41 percent of likely caucus-goers said they could still change their minds.

The newspaper's poll, conducted Tuesday through Friday, showed Romney with 24 percent support and Paul with 22 percent, within the margin of error of 4 percentage points and similar to other polls showing the two battling for the top spot in Iowa.

Santorum had 15 percent support and Gingrich 12 percent. In fifth place was Rick Perry with 11 percent, and Michele Bachmann was sixth with 7 percent.

The poll was released as candidates launched the final stretch run for Tuesday's contest in Iowa, the first in the state-by-state battle to choose a Republican challenger to Obama, a Democrat, in the November election.

The results were a boost to Romney, who has resumed his front-runner's role in the Republican presidential race in the last few weeks after the slide of Gingrich.

A victory for Romney in Iowa, combined with a win in the next contest on Jan. 10 in New Hampshire, could put the former Massachusetts governor on a path to clinching the Republican nomination early.

But Santorum was the candidate with momentum in the closing days of the race. The Register poll was taken over a four-day period and the newspaper said that in the final two days of polling, Santorum was in second place with 21 percent. Romney stayed the same at 24 percent.

The poll was more bad news for Gingrich, the former House speaker who led the race a few weeks ago but has faded under an onslaught of attack ads from Paul and an outside group that backs Romney.

At a stop in Iowa earlier on Saturday, Gingrich said he would adjust his campaign strategy to respond more forcefully to the attacks.

'NASTIER AND DISHONEST'

"We're learning a lot about what our opponents will do. They are nastier and more dishonest than I expected. So we'll have to make some adjustments," Gingrich said in Atlantic, Iowa.

But Gingrich said he would not respond directly to negative ads run by the group that supports Romney.

"We may go to a much more clearer contrast but we're not going to respond in kind," Gingrich said. "Those ads are dishonest and he knows it. They are factually false and he knows it. And we're not doing anything like that."

Most of the candidates rolled across Iowa in buses on Saturday, stopping at coffee shops, restaurants and even a car museum to try to win over doubters and energize supporters to turn out to the caucuses.

In Iowa's quirky caucus system, voters gather to cast ballots in public meetings after listening to pitches on behalf of the candidates.

Romney returned to Iowa after a morning appearance in New Hampshire and refrained from mentioning any of his Republican rivals, targeting his attacks on Obama's handling of the struggling U.S. economy and foreign policy.

"I see this election as not just an election to replace a president. I see this as an election to save the soul of America," he told a crowd that jammed a restaurant in Le Mars in conservative western Iowa.

Paul, a libertarian congressman who has a loyal and active group of supporters and a strong campaign organization in Iowa, is taking the holiday weekend off in Texas before returning to Iowa on Monday.

Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania with a strong social conservative message, was trying to unite Iowa's influential evangelical Christian voters behind him and score an upset with a surge in the final days.

"If you really want to transform America, it has to be about values, faith and freedom," he told a crowd in Knoxville, Iowa.

Santorum said Romney victories in Iowa and New Hampshire would not end the race. Conservative South Carolina, which votes on Jan. 21, will be next up on the schedule and a conservative who can rally anti-Romney voters will be a powerful force.

Many social conservatives distrust Romney because at one time he backed abortion rights and signed a Massachusetts healthcare law similar to Obama's federal plan.

"This is not going to be over in two states," Santorum told CNN.

Texas Governor Perry said he would head straight to South Carolina rather than New Hampshire after the Iowa vote. Perry has ticked up in recent polls after swamping Iowa's airwaves with nearly ${esc.dollar}3 million in television and radio ads.

"I think we're gaining traction every day," Perry told Fox News. "I think we're in the race for the top spot."

The Iowa poll also was bad news for Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota who is in danger of an early elimination just months after winning Iowa's August straw poll - a key early test of strength.

"I have proven I am the strong core conservative in this race," she told CNN during a stop at her campaign headquarters in Urbandale, Iowa.

Several candidates - Gingrich, Santorum, Bachmann and Jon Huntsman - joined a lawsuit already filed by Perry against Virginia's Board of Elections to qualify for the state's 2012 primary election.

Romney and Paul were the only candidates who managed to submit the required 10,000 verifiable signatures collected by registered voters in the state in order to get on Virginia's ballot for its March 6 primary. (Additional reporting by Ros Krasny and Michelle Nichols in New Hampshire, Jeff Mason, Jane Sutton and Lindsay Claiborn in Iowa; Editing by Bill Trott and Doina Chiacu)

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