DAVENPORT, Iowa — A day before Iowans hold the first-in-the-nation nominating contest, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and his surrogates are making his closing argument in the tight contest: He's best prepared to beat President Barack Obama in November.
"Think about this question: Who is best positioned, who is best equipped to actually win the election in November and to defeat Barack Obama?" Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) said at an event with Mr. Romney here Monday. "That is a very important factor in this equation."
Ann Romney piled on the electability argument for her husband at Monday's stop, telling the crowd, "I sense a feeling, a coalescing, a momentum or whatever it is you want to call it around Mitt."
"I think people are starting to figure out that this is the guy that is going to beat Barack Obama," she said.
The latest polls show a tight race in Iowa, with Mr. Romney, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum vying for the top spot, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich falling back. Mr. Paul could benefit from diehard supporters and a strong organization in Iowa, while Mr. Santorum has seen a surge in momentum in recent days.
Mr. Gingrich appears to have found his strategy for pushing back against his GOP rivals: Attack Mr. Obama in front of voters and jab at Mr. Romney in front of reporters. It's a tricky balancing act for Mr. Gingrich, who promised a positive campaign but has faced a wave of attacks from other candidates and outside groups supporting them.
Speaking at an agriculture museum in Independence, Iowa, Mr. Gingrich said Mr. Obama should give up his salary. "He's just a candidate because he's not doing the job of the president," he said.
As he spoke with reporters later, he took shots at Mr. Romney's electability argument. The most ardent Republicans, he said, would rally around an alternative to Romney. "The conservatives will gradually become clearer on this—on the other hand you'll have a Massachusetts moderate," he said.
Mr. Gingrich also touted his debating skills. "People think I'd be the best debater against Obama," he said. "People think I'm the most knowledgeable."
Libertarian-leaning Mr. Paul kept up his call for smaller government as he made his closing arguments to a crowd of about 500 at a downtown Des Moines hotel. "The No. 1 responsibility of government is to protect liberty, not to be the policeman of the world and to have a runaway welfare state," he said.
He also predicted a strong finish in the Tuesday caucuses. "Enthusiasm is growing by leaps and bounds," Mr. Paul said. "The crowds are getting bigger."
For its part, the Romney campaign is making the argument that the former Massachusetts governor is the most viable candidate to go the distance.
"Look, Obama and the DNC are terrified of Mitt Romney," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney campaign adviser. "They do not want a contest with Mitt Romney because if Mitt Romney is the nominee we're going to spend the entire year talking about the fact that there are 25 million Americans looking for work and this president has failed them."
The Democratic National Committee has already taken aim at Mr. Romney and the business experience he touts as a core qualification in his bid for the presidency. In the DNC's latest shot, it held a press conference Sunday with Randy Johnson, a former factory worker at American Pad and Paper in Marion, Ind. Bain Capital, a private-equity firm Mr. Romney once headed, bought the company in 1994 and went on to consolidate operations, ultimately laying off 200 workers including Mr. Johnson.
"I think he's out of touch with the average person," Mr. Johnson said. "I really think he didn't care about the workers."
The Davenport event was the first of four Mr. Romney was to hold in eastern and central Iowa Monday and was sparsely attended compared with recent stops in the western part of the state where voters have lined up outdoors and packed into overflow rooms for a glimpse of the candidate. Both the eastern and western edges of the state broke for Mr. Romney in 2008, and the campaign is relying on the loyalty of voters here to deliver a promising finish this year.
"This county did good things for me last time around," Mr. Romney said. "I need you to get out and do that again with even more votes."
That's where voters such as Matthew Onken, 50 years old, and his wife Karen, 45, come in. Both supported Mr. Romney in his bid for the nomination in 2008 and while they checked out other candidates this year—Messrs. Paul and Santorum as well as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann— they ended up back with Mr. Romney.
"I think that he is a very good leader," said Ms. Onken, who attended the Monday morning rally and plans to caucus along with her husband. "If someone doesn't stand up and speak for him, we definitely will."
Mr. Romney, who appeared with three of his sons along with his wife, made his usual stump speech and did not take questions from voters as his campaign shifts from small-venue retail politics to more rally-style stops.
As they continue to lay the groundwork for other early voting states, the Romney campaign rolled out endorsements from 15 more New Hampshire legislators Monday, tallying his support there at 73 state representatives and nine state senators. While Mr. Romney focuses on Iowa, former Gov. John Sununu and Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas were set to host a rally for him in New Hampshire, which holds the first-in-the nation primary on Jan. 10.