DES MOINES â€”Â Mitt RomneyÂ sought to convert his tentative standing atop the polls into a first-place finish in the caucuses here, telling Iowans on Sunday that he had the â€œcapability to go the full distanceâ€ against President Obama, as his rivals beseeched voters not to settle on a candidate lacking full commitment to their conservative values.
Just as confidence had been rising among Mr. Romney and his aides that they could pull off a win here on Tuesday night, they were faced with a fresh challenge fromÂ Rick Santorum, who emerged as the latest in a rotating cast of surging alternatives, ebullient about his rising standing in the polls and support from excited crowds on Sunday in Sioux City and Rock Rapids.
â€œDonâ€™t put forward somebody who isnâ€™t good enough to do whatâ€™s necessary to change this country,â€ Mr. Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, declared at a town hall-style meeting in Sioux City, feeding off his new status as a real contender here. â€œPut forward someone that you know has the vision, the trust, the authenticity, the background, the record, to make that happen.â€
Still decidedly in the mix wasÂ Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning congressman from Texas, whose dedicated followers could still propel him into the lead Tuesday night and in the nominating contests that will unfold in the coming months.
Even though the Republican race remained fluid, the Democratic Party stepped up its involvement in the opposing contest, and several aides to the presidentâ€™s re-election team arrived here to open a war room at a downtown hotel. The prime target was Mr. Romney. They introduced an Indiana worker who was laid off in the early 1990s when his company was restructured under the direction of Mr. Romneyâ€™s investment firm.Iowaâ€™s caucuses do not have an especially good record of predicting Republican nominees. But the result here could be an indicator of whether Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, is succeeding in rallying conservatives behind him or whether he faces a months of struggle to win delegates and resolve the rifts within the party. After months of campaigning, a long series of debates and the rise and fall of one challenger after another, no one has yet shown that they can knock off Mr. Romney â€” but Mr. Romney, despite running a largely mistake-free campaign, has yet to prove that he can break through the ceiling of support of about 25 percent in national polls that has defined his candidacy in a fractured field.
Mr. Romneyâ€™s campaign aides were watching Mr. Santorumâ€™s new strength carefully. They said that while they were satisfied that Mr. Santorumâ€™s rise was further fracturing the anti-Romney vote between him, Mr. Paul, the former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, they could take nothing for granted when only half of likely Iowa caucusgoers say they have committed to a candidate.
And, on a day when all but the most politically involved Iowans were at home celebrating the new year and watching football, Mr. Romneyâ€™s campaign workers were calling the homes of potentially supportive caucusgoers they have been recruiting for months, wishing a happy new year to their families along with a gentle reminder to attend the caucuses.