Salena Zito

CARROLL, Iowa -- The race is down to the wire and is still hard to call.

When Iowa Republicans caucus with their neighbors on Tuesday. night, they will have scrutinized the presidential candidates more closely than ever before.

"This is a head, not a heart, election. Voters are very serious this year, and they should be; there is a lot at stake in this country," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told the Tribune-Review after an event at Santa Maria Winery in this West Central Iowa city.

Experts predict he will take fifth place or worse.

"We want to make sure that who we send into the general election next year is seasoned and ready to take on President Obama," said Ben Puck, a businessman who will caucus at Carroll's community center. Puck, 53, said he respects and admires Gingrich as a conservative thinker but does not think he has the basic understanding of economics to run the country.

In the final push to earn votes this week, candidates used old-fashioned politicking: barnstorming across the state in buses bearing their shrink-wrapped likenesses and slogans. As they shook hands and posed for photographs, they often took tough questions from people about how they could offer an effective alternative to Obama's policies.

Appearing confident and competent, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney leads most polls.

"No thing is a sure thing at this stage, but it feels terrific," he said on Friday after appearing with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at an event outside a grocery store near Des Moines.

"The governor has always been respected here," said Steve Lewandowski, 52, of Dubuque, a businessman who earlier in the week drove 74 miles to hear Romney speak in Davenport. "While all of the other candidates rose and fell, he kept plugging along, never straying from who he is."

Lewandowski said he's one of the thinking voters: "I did my due diligence. I looked at the issues, especially the economy, but I also looked at how each candidate handled pressure and risk. I may love Newt Gingrich, but we need Mitt Romney."

Ryan Siedenburg, a high school senior, will turn 18 on Monday, making him eligible to vote.

"This is great," he said from the back of the crowded Machine Shed restaurant in Urbandale, while Texas Gov. Rick Perry made his pitch to Westside Christian Club breakfast attendees.

Perry portrayed himself as the authentic conservative and a Washington outsider.

"He may be," said Dave Siedenburg, Ryan's father, "but after much deliberation and a little prayer, I am going with Romney."

An NBC-Marist poll released on Friday showed Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul virtually tied for the lead among likely caucus-goers. It put former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in third place and Perry in fourth. Gingrich was sliding to fifth from the lead he held only weeks ago. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann fell to the bottom of the pack.

Perhaps more striking, Tea Party supporters are essentially divided among the field.

"This is not an election just to change presidents, it's an election to save the soul of America," Romney said in a speech at Kinzler Construction Co. in Ames. At Centro Inc., a plastics manufacturer in North Liberty, he emphasized that "government doesn't create jobs; the American people create jobs."

Romney's campaign in Iowa was solid, yet low-key, building upon a network of goodwill he earned in his second-place showing in 2008. His trusted consultant, Dave Kochel, and a few staffers grew that base into a grassroots organization that has kept voters engaged. In the final stretch, when demeanor counts, Romney is keeping his message positive.

Contrasting Romney's elegant rise is Bachmann's messy fall. She last enjoyed front-runner status the day before winning the nonbinding Ames straw poll, an August fundraiser for the state party. Perry overshadowed her win that day by announcing in North Carolina that he would run. This past week, Bachmann's Iowa campaign lost its chairman, Kent Sorenson, and political director, Wes Enos.

With voters, she compares herself to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. "I am the Iron Lady," she said at Legends, a family restaurant in Marshalltown.

That may well be, said Irv Vaske, 79, who sells "green" chemical products, but it's not likely to propel her first past the finish line -- especially since Bachmann spent more time with cable TV talk show interviews than voters who came to see her.

"I love her and her message, but I am going to go with a winner," Vaske said. He hasn't decided who that might be.

"Maybe Santorum," he said.

Santorum won over Mark McQueen, 48, a farmer who went to a Gingrich event in Carroll to "make sure Newt's my guy." He decided instead that Santorum "is the real deal."

Santorum, who completed a 99-county visit across Iowa, told the Trib that he's "connecting with voters on a level that none of the others are."

Yet, said Lara Brown, an expert on presidential elections at Villanova University, Republican voters in Iowa and elsewhere appear more interested in experience and electability than Santorum's ideological purity. They are gravitating to Romney, she said, because "voters are looking towards the steady candidate."


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.