Iowa's GOP presidential contest remains deeply unsettled, if not downright strange, five days before the Jan. 3 caucus.
Rep. Ron Paul, drawing big crowds, got a surprise endorsement Wednesday night from Rep. Michele Bachmann's now-former state chairman. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, who has languished for months, suddenly seems to have momentum, just as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich may be losing his.
And Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who began the campaign by de-emphasizing Iowa, might be poised to finish on top. He's striking an optimistic tone in the final days of the Iowa campaign.
"The spirit of enterprise, innovation, pioneering and can-do propelled our standard of living and economy past that of any other nation on earth," Romney says in a new ad he rolled out Thursday. "And in the campaign to come, the American ideals of economic freedom and opportunity need a clear and unapologetic defense. And I intend to make it because I have lived it."
His allies, too, are keeping the heat on his opponents.
The Restore Our Future super PAC, made up of Romney allies, rolled out a new ad that asks "Haven't we had enough mistakes?" and notes all the times when Newt Gingrich has said he had a lapse in judgment or acknowledged errors.
It's part of an unabashed push by Romney in Iowa as his rivals scramble to deny him huge momentum heading into the Jan. 10 primary in New Hampshire, his second home.
Paul, the 76-year-old libertarian-leaning Texan, drew about 500 people at the Iowa State fairgrounds in Ames late Wednesday. A group of Occupy activists tried to interrupt the rally, but that wasn't the main surprise.
State Sen. Kent Sorenson, who had campaigned a few hours earlier with Bachmann as a state chairman of her bid, announced he would support Paul instead.
Paul's anti-government appeal appears to tap into the desire of a frustrated electorate for profound change in an era of high unemployment and an economy that has only slowly recovered from the recession.
"In the last couple of weeks I fell into Ron Paul's camp," said Bob Colby, of Newton, who spent 21 years in the military and is a former employee of a now-shuttered Maytag plant in town.
Paul, who is airing TV ads hitting Romney and Gingrich, planned a town hall meeting Thursday in Perry, Iowa, plus stops in Atlantic and Council Bluffs.
There were other odd campaign notes Wednesday.
Two politically active pastors in Iowa's robust evangelical conservative movement disclosed an effort to persuade either Santorum or Bachmann to quit the race and endorse the other. "Otherwise, like-minded people will be divided and water down their impact," said Rev. Cary Gordon, a Sioux City minister and a leader among Iowa's social conservatives.
Neither candidate appeared interested.
Meanwhile, an ever more confident Romney scheduled stops Thursday in Cedar Falls, Mason City and Ames. He has air support: TV ads say he has the best chance to beat President Barack Obama in November.
Asked Wednesday about the prospects for back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney demurred. "I can't possibly allow myself to think in such optimistic terms," he said. "I just have to put my head down and battle as best I can."
Santorum seems to be gaining steam, according to a Time-CNN survey and some private polls. "We're very, very happy with the new numbers," he told reporters in Dubuque.
Acknowledging widespread voter anger in an age of high unemployment, Santorum told an audience Wednesday: "If you want to stick it to the man, don't vote for Ron Paul. That's not sticking it to anybody but the Republican Party."
Santorum, who planned events Thursday in the eastern Iowa towns of Coralville, Wilton, Muscatine and Davenport, says he believes his improved showing reflects voters' belief that he "can be trusted" and that "we've got a record to back it up."
He said in an appearance on NBC's "Today" show Thursday that he's the only one in the Republican field who "has a track record" of winning elections in states, like Pennsylvania, where it was necessary for GOP candidates to attract independents and Democrats.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry adjusted his position on abortion for a second straight day, telling reporters he would allow abortion if a woman's life were at risk. On Tuesday, he had told a pastor that he had undergone a "transformation" on abortion rights and now opposed the procedure in cases of rape or incest after having recently met a woman who said she was conceived by a rape.
Asked if a mother's life was the only instance when he would allow abortion, he was concise as he boarded his bus Wednesday: "That's correct."
Perry planned events Thursday in Washington, Cedar Rapids and Marshalltown.
Gingrich, who has suffered under a barrage of TV attack ads, also took aim at Paul. "I'm very uncomfortable with the idea that the commander in chief would think it was irrelevant to have an Iranian nuclear weapon," he said Wednesday.
Gingrich planned events Thursday in Sioux City, Storm Lake, Denison and Carroll.
Bachmann took aim Wednesday at her two rivals from Texas. She said Perry has spent "27 years as a political insider," and Paul would be "dangerous as president" because of his hands-off views on national security.
Bachmann scheduled events Thursday in Des Moines, Marshalltown and Nevada, Iowa.
Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont, Brian Bakst, David Espo, Philip Elliott, Beth Fouhy, Mike Glover, Kasie Hunt and Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this report.