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More than a hundred thousand Iowans will gather in small groups this evening in the first contest of the presidential election. Six Republican candidates campaigned across the state yesterday with the same goal: motivating supporters to leave home on a cold night, go to their precinct meeting places and vote.
NPR's Ted Robbins tracked the candidates and has this report from Iowa.
TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Davenport, Dubuque, Sioux City, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines. It's not a train schedule, it's five of more than 20 scheduled campaign stops the candidates made yesterday. So where to start? Might as well go top to bottom according to the latest poll, though everyone agrees the race is still so fluid that even last week's order is no predictor of caucus results.
As the front-runner, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney hasn't been directly attacking his opponents. He's been attacking President Barack Obama. Here's Romney at the Weber Paper Company in Dubuque.
MITT ROMNEY: The president seems to want to turn us into a European-style welfare state. An entitlement society where government comes and takes from some people to give to others. What will that do? That will replace ambition with envy. That would poison the very spirit of American enterprise.
ROBBINS: Romney may be leading, but Ron Paul is close - 22 percent to Romney's 24 in the last Des Moines Register poll. Paul supporters are organized and they tend to passionately believe in the Texas Congressman's libertarian message: a lot of personal liberty with very few government functions. He spoke at a downtown Des Moines hotel.
REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL: What is the proper role? Stay out of running the economy. Stay out of our personal lives. And stay out of the internal affairs of other nations. We don't need to be doing that.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
ROBBINS: Rick Santorum has spent more time in Iowa than any other candidate. The former Pennsylvania Senator has been driving around in a pick-up truck. But yesterday, he got a bus - a bus which belongs to reality television's Duggar family, who star in the show "19 and Counting." They support Santorum's Christian conservative faith and family message.
Santorum is within striking distance of the lead, and is now expected to at least finish in the top three.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ROBBINS: At a Pizza Ranch Restaurant in Boone, Santorum was hoarse from all his speaking, but cheerful.
RICK SANTORUM: I didn't have the money to compete here. But we were able to do it. Why? Because money doesn't buy Iowa. Hard work, good ideas, strong principles.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
ROBBINS: As Santorum has risen, Newt Gingrich has fallen. The former House speaker led in Iowa just last month. He predicted he'd be the Republican nominee. Yesterday, Gingrich said he no longer expected to even win the Iowa caucuses.
Standing in front of what's said to be the world's largest tractor in Independence, Iowa, Gingrich insisted his intellect and his experience should be enough for him to win.
NEWT GINGRICH: I am the only candidate who could successfully debate Obama in the fall. And I'm the only candidate who has an actual track record, twice with Reagan and then as Speaker, of actually changing Washington.
ROBBINS: The last two candidates could suffer if Rick Santorum manages to consolidate the Christian conservative vote, Texas Governor Rick Perry and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Perry was in Sioux City, predicting that the weather Tuesday will be cold and breezy - good enough for his supporters to turn out.
GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: And you'll be able to go in mass to go caucus for me. And I'll make this pact with you: If you will have my back tomorrow at the caucuses, I will have your back for the next four years in Washington, D.C. God bless you and thank you all for coming out and being with us
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
ROBBINS: Which brings us to Michele Bachmann, she's been working hard but fading fast. Bachman did air a last minute TV ad, playing up her Iowa roots.
(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One of our own. Michele Bachmann for president.
REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN REPUBLICAN, MINNESOTA: I'm Michele Bachmann and...
ROBBINS: Bachman also once led in Iowa. But at an appearance in front of her bus in West Des Moines, she almost sounded as though she were conceding.
MINNESOTA: To be able to campaign for the presidency of the United States, to have been the first woman ever in the history of the Iowa straw poll to win that straw poll, it's been a thrill for me to do this.
ROBBINS: At some point, every candidate who's campaigned in Iowa has led here, except Rick Santorum. It'll soon be clear who has peaked at the right time.
Ted Robbins, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.