MASON CITY, Iowa (AP) - Iowa Republicans may be starting to choose with their heads rather than their hearts as the Jan. 3 caucuses approach.
The ascent of libertarian-leaning Ron Paul and the lack of an ideologically pure consensus conservative seem to be awakening a new sense of pragmatism in some Iowa Republicans. That bodes well for Mitt Romney, as a large chunk of undecided voters continues the search for someone capable of defeating President Barack Obama.
"A lot of the people I'm around are not Romney fans, but they are kind of acknowledging they think he's going to be the nominee, and that they'll plug their nose and vote for him," said Gwen Ecklund, Republican chairwoman in GOP-heavy Crawford County in conservative western Iowa.
A week before voting begins in the fluid Republican race, interviews with a dozen Iowa political operatives and party activists - as well as internal polling by rival campaigns - suggest that some Iowans are increasingly concerned about Paul, whose views often stray from GOP orthodoxy, and have begun to fall in line behind Romney instead of another candidate seen as more devoutly conservative but weaker against Obama.
Unlike Paul and his other opponents, there's room for Romney's support to grow. Public and private polling suggests he's more often the second choice of Republican caucus-goers than any other candidate, indicating that Republicans could be swayed in the coming week to support him over others.
Conversely, few see Paul, the ideological libertarian, as a substitute for their first choice of a hardline conservative. In a sign of Newt Gingrich's slide, Texas Gov. Rick Perry - who is seeing a slight bump as the Iowa campaign nears its end - is more often identified as a second choice than is Gingrich.
"When you have a race this fluid, second choices, I think, if you have good surrogates standing up and making the pitch for you in the caucuses, you may be able to dislodge people from their first choice," said John Stineman, a West Des Moines Republican and former caucus campaign manager for Steve Forbes.
Public polls show that at least half of caucus-goers are undecided or could still change their mind, meaning Romney, the former Massachusetts governor whose Mormon faith and reversals on social issues have left influential Iowa Christian conservatives feeling skeptical, now has an opportunity to try to seal the deal.
Mindful of that, Romney is entering the final phase of the Iowa campaign with a confident air - and a push to win the contest after trying to lower expectations. He spent heavily here in 2008 only to lose big.
Romney was launching a bus tour of Iowa Tuesday and starting to make his closing argument - essentially the same as his opening argument - that he is the strongest Republican to take on Obama on the No. 1 issue, the economy. Romney also was dispatching surrogates from nearby states, including South Dakota Sen. John Thune, former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman and former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent, to campaign in Iowa. His campaign also urged supporters during a conference call Monday to sign up to represent Romney at the caucuses - essentially meetings of GOP activists in the state's 1,774 precincts - and to stand up to speak on behalf of the campaign.
Romney planned to spend four full days in the state, by far his longest trip in four years, to woo a fickle GOP electorate that hasn't settled on a front-runner.
Of all the candidates, only former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has been denied a moment in the spotlight - even though he's scoured every corner of the state and, in recent days, has collected endorsements from key leaders in Iowa's influential social conservative movement. He urged more than 100 people in the ballroom of Mason City's historic Park Hotel on Tuesday to stick to their principles, saying: "We need this election to be about someone who is a conservative, and proud of it."
In a race with no shortage of leaders this year, Paul has been the latest to become a leading, non-establishment alternative to Romney. But the newfound status has brought new scrutiny over Paul's unorthodox, non-interventionist foreign policy views and statements that appeared in newsletters he published in the early 1990s when he was not serving in Congress.
Among the statements: "Homosexuals, not to speak of the rest of society, were far better off when social pressure forced them to hide their activities." Another newsletter passage said "if you have ever been robbed by a black teen-aged male, you know how unbelievably fleet-footed they can be." Paul previously said such material was the work of ghostwriters, while acknowledging he bore "some moral responsibility" for it.
It's all enough to worry some Iowa Republicans that Paul could marginalize the caucuses' impact should he win.
"The moderate and establishment Republicans are scared Ron Paul is going to have a good showing. If he wins Iowa, it's going to diminish the clout Iowa has," said Mark Greenfield, chairman of the Hamilton County GOP who initially backed Perry but switched to Romney within the last two weeks, describing him as an "electable leader."
Santorum put it this way: "The things most Iowans like about Ron Paul are the things he's least likely to accomplish," like Paul's plan to cut the deficit by $1 trillion in his first year, "and the things most Iowans are worried about about Ron Paul are the things he can accomplish."
Before Paul, Gingrich was at the top of the heap but he has slid in the wake of an onslaught of negative TV and radio ads - from both Paul and allies of Romney's - highlighting his collaboration on climate change with Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi and his consulting work for the federally backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac after he left the House. Leaflets noting his two divorces and acknowledged marital infidelity also have popped up across the state. Combined the attacks have damaged him - perhaps irreversibly so.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann experienced a burst in popularity several months ago but wasn't able to sustain it.
Perry, however, seems to be running slightly stronger than he has in months. He's drawn large, enthusiastic crowds during a bus tour and aides to rival candidates say favorability toward Perry is rising, though probably not enough to give him the late-game burst of momentum he'd need to win in Iowa. It's a sign that the roughly $5 million Perry has spent on advertising since late October, combined with more than $1 million from a super PAC that supports his candidacy, may be paying dividends.