The race for the Republican presidential nomination is deeply unsettled with an anything-can-happen feel six weeks before Iowans start the state-by-state process of choosing a GOP challenger for President Barack Obama.
Hoping to sway the many voters who are still undecided, most of the contenders visited the state in the past week and the pace of campaigning is certain to accelerate after Thanksgiving, when the monthlong sprint to the Jan. 3 caucuses begins. A crush of new TV ads is certain. Expect mailboxes filled with brochures and repeated visits by candidates to diners, town squares and other must-stop venues.
"People are getting close to decision time," former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, one of several candidates whose bids depend on a strong Iowa showing, told The Associated Press. "You're going to see some coalescing in the next couple of weeks."
A recent poll found that 60 percent of Republicans who plan to participate in the caucuses are willing to change their minds and 10 percent are fully undecided. That Bloomberg News survey showed a four-way race: Clustered at the top were Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Ron Paul, candidates whose positions, backgrounds and personalities run the gamut. Languishing far behind were Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, who at one point enjoyed huge bursts of support.
Iowa's outcome matters because it will shape the contest in New Hampshire, which holds its primary Jan. 10, and in states beyond.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has started stepping up his efforts in Iowa after playing it cautiously all year. He plans to return to the state Wednesday after skipping a multi-candidate forum in Des Moines on Saturday night.
Nearly all his rivals, promoting themselves as a viable alternative to Romney, gathered on one stage to discuss how their religious faith influences their public life before a large and influential audience of social conservatives.
Considered the one to beat because of his strength on several fronts, Romney spent the weekend in New Hampshire.
In Iowa, he's hoping that social conservatives who make up the GOP's base will splinter their support among the crowded field of candidates who are considered more conservative than Romney. No one has emerged as the consensus choice of those conservatives, though many are trying.
They include Cain, a Georgia businessman, and Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker, who seem just as poised to break out of the pack as they are to fade. Both are seen as attractive for a Republican electorate craving a candidate who will take it to Obama in a no-holds-barred style. But both also are trying hard to weather increased scrutiny.
Cain continues to fight decade-old sexual harassment allegations, along with questions about his grasp of an array of policies. Iowans don't seem to be punishing him for any of it, so far. He cheerfully greeted a crowd of more than 200 at a Dubuque restaurant Tuesday on just his second trip to Iowa in the past three months.
"Herman Cain's support at this point has intensified," Johnson County GOP Chairman Bob Anderson said. "There's been no decrease in his level of support based on the controversy that's erupted."
But Cain has little campaign structure in the state and a tiny staff. Despite the upbeat tone of his visit, he did little outreach to influential Republican activists. He took no audience questions in Dubuque, spent most of his time in Iowa recording a campaign advertisement and headlined a five-minute news conference spent primarily defending an awkward response to an interview question about Libya a day earlier.
Like Cain, Gingrich returned to Iowa last week to find himself on the defensive over a number of issues, including the roughly $1.6 million he received as a consultant to Freddie Mac, the federally backed mortgage giant detested by conservatives. He found himself spending the bulk of his three-day trip trying to portray his history with the company as a sign of valuable experience.
"It reminds people that I know a great deal about Washington," Gingrich said. "We just tried four years of amateur ignorance, and it didn't work very well. So having someone who actually knows Washington might be a really good thing."
As the week ended, Gingrich introduced a website that collects, and provides answers for, what he long has claimed are myths about his background and explanations for policy position changes throughout the years. Among the issues Gingrich addresses are his admissions of adultery and divorce, topics likely to rile cultural conservatives in Iowa.
Paul, a Texas congressman, returned to the state at week's end to find that he was steadily drawing sizable crowds to restaurants and community centers in small towns such as Vinton and Anamosa, where audiences applauded his proposal to cut $1 trillion from the federal deficit his first year in office, primarily by vastly reducing U.S. foreign aid.
Long dismissed by the GOP establishment, the libertarian-leaning candidate is now turning heads beyond his hard-core followers four years since his failed 2008 bid. This year, he's running a more mature Iowa campaign and it's showing. He finished a close second to Minnesota Rep. Bachmann in August test vote, an indication of his stronger organization.
Texas Gov. Perry, trying to get back on track after a damaging few weeks that has affected his once-robust fundraising, is accelerating his already aggressive TV advertising schedule in Iowa and is making government reform, as well as assailing Obama, the cornerstone of his campaign in hopes of rebounding.
"Washington's broken, and needs a complete overhaul," Perry says in a new ad. "Replacing one Washington insider with another won't change a thing. If you want an outsider who'll overhaul Washington, then I'm your guy."
It's a message that has some sticking with Perry, despite his troubles.
"I haven't given up on Rick Perry, personally," said Hamilton County Republican Chairman Mark Greenfield, who supports Perry. "He's a lower-tier candidate now. But he's the one person who can turn the economy around if he can only clarify his message."
Bachmann, too, is fighting to come back with a second act after a blazing hot summer and a victory in the Iowa GOP straw poll. Some of her evangelical base has drifted elsewhere, but she's still focused on trying to get them to rally behind her like they did former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the Iowa caucus winner in 2008.
"It is amazing to me how God uses those challenges to shape your life," Bachmann said of her parents' divorce, noting during the Saturday forum how it influenced her decision to be a foster parent to more than 20 children in addition to her five biological children.
The candidate who may stand to gain from Bachmann's inability to wrap up the evangelical vote is Santorum. The former Pennsylvania senator is the only Republican with staunch socially conservative credentials competing hard in Iowa who hasn't enjoyed a burst of support this year.
That's not for lack of trying.
He's essentially camped out in the state for months and has campaigned in all 99 Iowa counties on a shoestring budget.