URBANDALE, Iowa — Less than a month before the nation's first 2012 Republican presidential voting in Iowa, Newt Gingrich is way ahead in polls, but his lead appears fragile, and the race remains as volatile as it's been all year.
Mitt Romney is plagued by his on-again, off-again campaign here and a perception that he changes his views too easily, but he's gearing up and has the money and organization to matter. Ron Paul's got strong pockets of strength. The three conservatives who appeal to the state's active Christian constituency — Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann — are still players here.
In short, this race to the Jan. 3 Iowa GOP caucuses is far from over.
"People are still looking," said Steve Armstrong, chairman of the Linn County Republican party in Cedar Rapids.
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Gingrich, the former House of Representatives speaker, is the clear favorite at the moment. He was the choice of 33 percent of likely GOP voters in a Nov. 30-Dec. 4 ABC News-Washington Post poll. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Paul, a Texas congressman, tied at 18 percent. The survey of 356 potential GOP caucus voters had an error margin of plus or minus 6 percentage points.
But perhaps the most telling statistic in the survey was this: More than 60 percent of Iowa voters said they're still deciding.
Their mood was clear Wednesday in two separate focus groups, one organized by the Westside Conservative Club and another by The Iowa Republican, a website. Both were held in Des Moines suburbs.
Three voters said they definitely would caucus for Gingrich. Five more said they preferred Gingrich, but could change. Five were undecided, one was for Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, and two were for Perry, the Texas governor.
Dave Davidson, a Des Moines photographer, summed up the prevailing view: "Gingrich is Humpty Dumpty. If he stays on the wall, he'll be fine."
People are waiting to see Iowa debates on Saturday night and Dec. 15.
They're also getting newly bombarded by candidate ads, including a fresh one from Paul that accuses Gingrich of "serial hypocrisy," among other things.
Voters also want to see how Gingrich's history plays now that he's getting vetted more rigorously by the media and his rivals. His extramarital affairs and two divorces don't play well in some circles. Neither does the $1.6 million he got from mortgage giant Freddie Mac for consulting. And the tumultuous record of his 1995-1999 speakership of the House, including an ethics controversy and an unsuccessful effort by fellow Republicans to oust him, is getting renewed attention 12 years after many voters have forgotten the details.
Some say that's old history.
"Anybody can make a mistake," said Polk County Republican Chairman Kevin McLaughlin.
Members of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Alliance, an influential pro-family group, have some sympathy for Gingrich.
"He's asked God's forgiveness," said Steve Scheffler, the alliance president.
Gingrich is trying to paint himself as a unifying figure. His Iowa TV ad is full of lofty praise about America's greatness.
At a time when the economy remains sluggish and Washington seems badly disconnected from voters' needs, many like Gingrich's off-the-cuff style.
"The guy's almost impervious. He doesn't dodge anything," said Al Barnum, a Clive hardwood-flooring business owner.
But doubts creep into every conversation.
"His downfall could be that he doesn't seem to believe in organizing," added Armstrong. How, he asked, can someone run the nation when they lack that skill?
And, said Craig Bergman, a Des Moines political consultant, Gingrich often says impolitic things. "Newt is the smartest unwise man in America," Bergman said.
Gingrich is benefiting from a limited enthusiasm for everyone else. Conservatives speak warmly of Perry, Bachmann and Santorum, but can't rally around any one of them, Scheffler said.
Even endorsements have qualifiers. The Rev. Cary Gordon of Sioux City's Cornerstone Church had praise for both Santorum, who got his backing, and Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman.
"It is abundantly necessary that the conservative community coalesce behind only one of ... two great candidates," he said. Santorum's promise to make Bachmann a "vital part of his administration" gave Santorum the edge.
Then again, Gordon said, "I want them both in the White House!"
The biggest unknown in this race is Romney. He waged an extensive Iowa effort in 2008, finishing a distant second. This year he seemed to pay little attention to Iowa until last week, when he began airing a TV ad contrasting himself with President Barack Obama.
Romney, who plans to discuss the economy at a Cedar Rapids town hall meeting on Friday, has a base of support among center-right Republicans, notably in the business, legal and professional communities. While they may not be passionate about him, they like his workmanlike approach.
"He's better prepared to deal with the economic agenda. Gingrich is the smartest candidate, but Romney is second smartest," said Isaiah McGee, a Waukee education consultant. He remains undecided.
While some deride Romney for not paying enough attention to the state this time, Dallas County Recorder Chad Airhart disagreed.
"He spent a lot of time here four years ago," Airhart said. "He still retains a lot of that support."
What hurts Romney is his record, notably his signing into law the Massachusetts health care measure requiring near-universal coverage, a state model for the 2010 federal law that Republicans hate.
"As an elected official, I understand how people change. But there were a lot of changes that happened quickly that give me pause" about Romney, said state House Majority Whip Erik Helland.
At the moment, the big question here is what happens if Gingrich stumbles. The betting is that may not happen, but few say so confidently.
"A lot of Gingrich's rise is bandwagon enthusiasm," said Craig Robinson, editor of The Iowa Republican website.
But Gingrich also fits Iowa Republicans' feisty, frustrated mood.
"Gingrich doesn't sugarcoat anything," Robinson said. "After all, what does he have to lose?"
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