By Steve Holland
DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - White House hopeful Mitt Romney brought in a hired gun from New Jersey on Friday to bolster his prospects for a win in Iowa next week that would put him in the lead in the Republican presidential race.
Romney and his rivals campaigned across Iowa on a windy, rainy day to begin a final frenzy of weekend appearances before the Midwestern state launches the 2012 contest to choose a Republican nominee to face Democratic President Barack Obama in November's election.
Romney, buoyed by an NBC/Marist poll that showed him leading the field ahead of Tuesday's Iowa caucuses, was upbeat about his chances in a state that jilted him for former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in 2008.
"This feels wonderful," Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, told Reuters as he worked a ropeline of supporters outside a grocery store in West Des Moines. "I tell you, the crowds and the enthusiasm couldn't be more wonderful."
The outcome of the caucuses is by no means certain and polls have been volatile as Iowans deliberate over who to choose as the Republican standard-bearer and the candidates jockey for position in the final days.
The NBC/Marist poll of likely caucus participants put Romney on top at 23 percent, just ahead of the 21 percent for libertarian Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
Rick Santorum, a social conservative and former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, has seen his prospects improve as influential evangelicals flock to his side. Santorum jumped to third place at 15 percent in the NBC/Marist poll, followed closely by Texas Governor Rick Perry at 14 percent.
Romney brought a powerful surrogate to Iowa, tough-talking New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is popular with conservatives and might shore up Romney's right wing.
Christie, who has gained a following among Republicans for taking on New Jersey's political establishment, urged a crowd of about 1,000 people to "take nothing for granted" and get out to the caucuses on Tuesday to vote for Romney.
Christie praised Romney as the best hopes of defeating Obama, who he said has not made good on his 2008 pledge to bring "hope and change" to America.
"Let me tell you, after three years of Obama, we are hopeless and changeless and we need Mitt Romney to bring us back," he said.
Christie told reporters he would not rule out joining Romney as his vice presidential running mate if Romney becomes the Republican nominee.
Former Iowa front-runner Newt Gingrich sank to 13 percent in the poll. The former House of Representatives speaker, buffeted by negative ads and attacks for weeks, got choked up talking about his mother.
"I get teary-eyed every time we sing Christmas carols," Gingrich told an event hosted at Java Joe's Coffee in Des Moines.
The candidates took shots at each other and argued they have the conservative policy ideas to help the United States trigger job growth.
"I will send a signal to our country's job creators and to the world that the days of socialist policies are over, that our free market is once again open for business," Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann told supporters in Urbandale.
The top three or four finishers in Iowa on Tuesday will have momentum heading to New Hampshire on January 10, while the rest will have to make some tough decisions on whether to continue.
Romney has shied away from going all-out in Iowa but is hoping the anti-Romney vote is splintered sufficiently among his rivals to allow him to score an upset victory and give him an aura of inevitability heading to what is essentially home turf for him in New Hampshire.
Some in the crowd at his event with Christie came for the opportunity to hear the New Jersey governor, not Romney.
"I don't want Chris Christie necessarily to run for vice president with Romney, although that would be okay, but he needs to be president, I think, Chris Christie," said John Brown of West Des Moines.
Romney, a multi-millionaire who plays down his wealth by talking about the poor conditions his father experienced, accused Obama of elitism, criticizing the president's vacation in Hawaii and likening his stewardship of the U.S. economy to 18th century French queen Marie Antoinette, who famously declared of the peasants "Let them eat cake."
Romney seized on comments Obama has made that the U.S. economy would be even weaker if stimulus measures he pushed through Congress had not been enacted.
"The other day President Obama said it could be worse, can you imagine hearing that from a pessimistic president? 'It could be worse.' That goes down with Marie Antoinette 'let them eat cake'," Romney said.
"He just finished his 90th round of golf. We've got 25 million Americans that are out of work, or stopped looking for work, or underemployed."
The Democratic National Committee said Romney's own personal wealth undermined his message.
"It is actually laughable that the "Quarter-Billion-Dollar Man" would call President Obama out of touch - and use the example of a French monarch to make the point," said DNC spokeswoman Melanie Roussell.