DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - The first round of voting in the Republican presidential contest may tell a lot about the power of negative TV ads, town-to-town campaigning and get-out-the-vote organizations.

Just don't expect it to say much about the heart and soul of the Republican Party, a sprawling, contentious institution that has yet to decide what balance of libertarianism, pragmatism and social and fiscal conservatism should define it.

Months of televised debates and campaigning have left the party as splintered and ill-defined as when the primary season began. Final polls before Tuesday's Iowa caucuses show a remarkably wide distribution of support among the six main candidates. There is no clear front-runner, and huge numbers of Iowa Republicans entered the weekend undecided.

From a strategic standpoint, the bunched grouping should help former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He could benefit, and perhaps win with a modest plurality, if conservative activists split their votes about evenly among his rivals.

From a philosophical standpoint, however, Iowa may do little to reveal how much the GOP of 2012 will be shaped by tea party activists, anti-tax crusaders, military hawks, economic moderates and other competing forces.

Despite months of trying, Romney has been unable to build a large and passionate following. Yet among his competitors, none has been able to emerge as the main rival who can consolidate the anti-Romney sentiment that's there for the taking.

A CNN/Time/ORC poll of Iowa Republicans shows that months of campaigning and torrents of TV ads have done little to resolve questions of policy and political philosophy.

Romney was in a virtual tie for the lead with libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania ran third.

Romney trailed Paul on the question of who most "agrees with you on the issues." But Romney is overwhelmingly seen as the Republican with the best chance of defeating President Barack Obama next fall.

If anything unites Republicans, it's their desire to oust Obama. It's a powerful force. It may be enough, on its own, to determine the 2012 election.

But it won't do much, by itself, to resolve GOP differences over matters such as how to cope with deficit spending. That issue triggered an embarrassing conflict this month between House and Senate Republicans over payroll tax legislation.

"Hating Obama is not a sufficient governing philosophy," said John Feehery, a longtime Republican aide and strategist. Similarly, he said, "libertarianism, no matter how enticing, is not a governing philosophy."

"The principle problem for conservatives is how do they reconcile their clear dislike for the government with their desire to actually run it," Feehery said. President George W. Bush offered "compassionate conservatism," he said, but it is "rejected by most conservatives. What is next?"

The early stages of the GOP primary campaign have not answered that.

Another poll of Iowa Republicans shows that important party factions are deeply divided. The NBC-Marist poll found that only 7 percent of Iowans likely to go to the caucuses believe Romney is the field's true conservative. Yet he was ahead, or essentially tied with Paul, on the front-runner question.

Tea party supporters, who account for nearly half of all likely caucus-goers, were widely split: 20 percent backed Santorum, while Romney and Paul each claimed 17 percent, with former House speaker Newt Gingrich at 16 percent, Texas Gov. Rick Perry at 15 percent and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota at 10 percent.

Many campaign veterans doubt that the tea party movement can replicate the impact it had on the 2010 congressional elections. The movement is decentralized by nature and seems better suited for state or local contests with well-focused issues and personalities.

A tea party failure to coalesce around one presidential candidate would further dilute its influence in 2012.

The party not holding the White House always has trouble identifying its leader, but the current GOP seems to have amnesia. Campaign ads flooding Iowa airwaves would lead viewers to think Ronald Reagan just stepped down. But there's never a mention of Bush, on TV or during campaign stops. The same is true of House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, the most powerful Republican in the federal government.

"The Republican Party is in a state of suspended animation as we wait for a nominee to lead us in 2012," said consultant Matt Mackowiak.

He said GOP primary voters want a solid conservative, someone who can "pass the commander in chief threshold" and someone "who will go at Obama directly and forcefully on policy."

"The reason the primary has been so volatile," Mackowiak said, is that "no one candidate has locked up all three criteria."

That's not to say the Republican candidates haven't outlined policy differences. Perry and Gingrich, for instance, advocate greater forbearance for illegal immigrants than do Romney and others.

Paul is the least orthodox contender. He calls for unprecedented cuts in federal programs, an end to the Federal Reserve, and a much more hands-off approach to foreign involvements and military actions. Even if Paul wins in Iowa, many GOP insiders say his appeal is too limited to win the nomination.

The campaign often has focused more on the candidates' backgrounds and temperaments than on policy. Romney stresses his 42-year marriage and his experience in the private sector. Perry promotes Texas' record of job growth during his tenure. Santorum emphasizes his career-long crusade against abortion, and the home-schooling of his seven children, among other things.

That's not unusual in a presidential primary. In the 2008 Democratic contest, Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton agreed on so many policies that the campaign focused heavily on their personalities and biographies.

Some Republican insiders are unperturbed by the unsettled nature of this year's race. Widespread unhappiness with Obama and the economy will unite Republicans, and many independents, behind the eventual nominee, no matter who it is, said GOP strategist Danny Diaz.

Besides, he said, "the party does not define the nominee, the nominee redefines the party."

If that notion comforts some Republicans, it worries others.

Feehery, who spent years working for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said presidential nominating contests typically sort out a party's policy disagreements. "That is why so many right-wing conservatives are so afraid of Romney," he said. "They know that if he wins, they lose," because "he doesn't agree with their naive nostalgia for Jeffersonian agrarianism."

"You need a strong federal government if you want America to thrive in an increasingly competitive world," Feehery said.

Should the federal government be strong or be restrained?

Should the one-year payroll tax cut be extended another year, as Senate Republicans have suggested, or ended, as many House Republicans seem to prefer? Romney, among others, has declined to be pinned down on that issue.

It's the type of question, however, that helps define a political party. That process that has a long way to go, even as Republicans start casting meaningful votes Tuesday.


EDITOR'S NOTE - Charles Babington covers politics for The Associated Press.