DES MOINES, Iowa — Winter finally announced itself in Iowa this weekend, a biting, swirling rain that symbolized the launch of something else: After a long windup, the race for the presidency is on.
"No one does it better than Iowa," Mitt Romney said to hundreds of people gathered outside a Hy-Vee supermarket Friday morning. "Look at you out here. With this rain, with the cold, with the wind."
The preliminaries are over. On Tuesday night more than 100,000 hearty Hawkeye State Republicans — fewer than the turnout for a typical Hillsborough County Commission election — are expected to gather at nearly 1,800 meetings across the state to winnow the field of Republican presidential candidates.
"We're the kick-start," said Urbandale resident Larry Mersereau, 60, who came out for Romney on Friday but, like many here, was trying to finalize his decision and planned to see Newt Gingrich today. "I wouldn't be out here in this if I didn't take it seriously."
The nominating process culminates in eight months with the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, but Iowans will reduce the options for the rest of the country's GOP voters.
Overwhelmingly dominated by evangelical activists, the caucuses tend to be better at establishing losers — fourth place or worse usually kills a campaign — than winners. Of the past six contested Republican caucuses, only Gerald Ford, Bob Dole and George W. Bush went on to win the nomination. John McCain finished fourth in 2008.
But the verdict in Iowa this week may determine whether the Republican primary wraps up quickly.
"I cannot imagine a scenario where a candidate takes both Iowa and New Hampshire and is not the nominee. At that point the momentum is so strong," said Tallahassee-based Republican consultant Sally Bradshaw, who is not affiliated with any campaign.
A Dec. 27-30 poll for the Des Moines Register released Saturday night showed Romney leading with 24 percent support, Ron Paul with 22 percent, Rick Santorum with 15, Gingrich with 12, Rick Perry with 11 and Michele Bachmann with 7. But the poll showed former Pensylvania Sen. Santorum surging in the final two days of the survey, and the poll found 41 percent of likely caucus-goers said they still could change their minds. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
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The Republican contest has been one of the most volatile and unsettled in memory, even as the fundamental story line remained consistent: Romney the nominal front-runner struggling to win over more than 25 percent of primary voters, while the remaining 75 percent splintered among the rest of the field.
While Romney never truly shuttered his 2008 campaign, influential Republicans courted a roster of alternatives: Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush.
They all passed.
In August, Texas Gov. Perry saw an opening and he quickly shot to the top of the polls. Prone to gaffes and poor debate performances, he crashed just as hard, as did Bachmann and Herman Cain, who dropped out after several women came forward to accuse him of improper behavior.
The field was finally set in October — later than most election cycles — when Sarah Palin announced she would not run, ending a protracted tease that included a campaign-style bus tour in Iowa during the Ames straw poll in August.
Most recently it has been Gingrich's turn at the top and only weeks ago he was boasting about, "when I'm in Tampa accepting the nomination." But his support has eroded under media scrutiny and millions of dollars in TV attack ads by rivals. Nearly half of all the ads shown in Iowa have been attacks on Gingrich, according to Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group. Only 20 percent were attacks on Romney.
Recent polls have shown Romney and Paul at the top in Iowa, and Santorum surging on his strong social conservative background. Perry, who's showing signs of recovery, embarked on a 44-stop bus trip across the state and has financed a torrent of ads emphasizing his Christian faith.
"It's like our weather," said Chuck Laudner, a prominent Santorum supporter, seeking to explain the tumultuous race so far. "Just wait a little bit and it will change."
"But all the past is prologue," he added. "Now people are starting to come back home to the candidate they always liked, whether they were viable or not."
Others, though, say it's more important to nominate the strongest candidate to take on President Barack Obama than the purest conservative.
"There isn't anybody, save for Ron Paul, that I wouldn't feel comfortable with as president," said Brad Gafford, a 47-year-old commercial real estate manager from Grimes. "But honestly, Romney has the best chance at being elected."
"He's the only one who's winnable," said Karen Anderson, 67, who also weathered the cold Friday morning to see Romney in West Des Moines.
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Is Romney beatable? Sure.
The former Massachusetts governor spent much of the year playing down Iowa, where he finished a distant second to Mike Huckabee in 2008 after spending millions in the state. Romney's strength in recent polls, though, raises the expectations, so even a relatively strong showing of second or third could be damaging.
Then it's on to New Hampshire's Jan. 10 primary, where Romney is the overwhelming favorite but Jon Huntsman is banking on a solid showing. Anything but a strong win could hurt him, as the race moves to South Carolina (Jan. 21), a state where Romney has never been favored and where Gingrich has high hopes.
Three worse-than-expected showings in a row could raise serious doubts about Romney by the time Florida weighs in on Jan. 31.
"Florida is central to everything," said Republican strategist Rick Wilson of Tallahassee, who foresees a scenario where Iowa looks largely irrelevant, New Hampshire is written off as a foregone conclusion for Romney, and the meaningful elections start in South Carolina and Florida.
"I don't think anyone's going to take Iowa seriously this time because it's a joke — Michele Bachmann wins the Ames straw poll and then may finish last? Newt Gingrich was way ahead in the polls two weeks ago and now may be in fourth or fifth place? Ron Paul comes in second or, depending on whom you believe, first place?" Wilson said, dismissing Paul as a candidate positioned to organize strongly for Iowa's arcane caucus system but far outside the mainstream of rank-and-file Republicans.
Romney would be better off coming in behind Paul in Iowa than any other candidate, said Washington-based Republican consultant John Feehery, but winning Iowa and New Hampshire back-to-back could make Romney unstoppable. Long-term viability depends heavily on having the resources to compete in state after state if the race continues well past Florida.
"Romney has been the front-runner, but kind of the beleaguered front-runner, and if he's able to win those first two states it shows he's an actual front-runner and not just a pretender,'' Feehery said. "If, for example, Rick Perry wins Iowa, that gives him a real shot of momentum and makes this race a lot longer."
The speculation starts to wind down Tuesday, and if this primary has proved anything, it's that anything can happen.