(Updates with opening of Iowa caucuses in third paragraph. For more campaign news, see ELECT.)
Jan. 3 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney looked beyond tonight’s Iowa caucuses and sought to display his campaign’s national reach and fundraising strength as aides said he plans to start advertising in Florida.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and business executive, is vying with U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania for the top spot in tonight’s party contest. Some of their rivals in the Republican presidential race face the possibility of an abrupt end to their White House bids.
After months of campaigning, the caucuses were to open at 8 pm Eastern Standard Time, with early returns of voting expected within an hour and the Iowa Republican Party promising a final tally tonight.
The six Republicans competing in Iowa made last-minute campaign stops today and appeared on local and national television and radio as they sought to spur turnout by supporters.
Romney’s campaign said in a news release that it plans to start running television ads in Florida, joining those it already has airing in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. It was meant as a show of strength that he can afford to advertise in the first four states to vote in the nominating contest.
“It’s good to be among the clump at the top,” Romney said today on Fox News, taking a more cautious approach than he did yesterday when he predicted a win in Iowa.
After Iowa, Romney plans to head to New Hampshire tomorrow and South Carolina later in the week. New Hampshire holds its primary on Jan. 10, followed by South Carolina’s on Jan. 21 and Florida’s on Jan. 31.
Romney has consistently led, usually by large margins, in polls of likely voters in the New Hampshire primary. No Republican who has won both Iowa and New Hampshire has failed to become the party’s nominee.
Newt Gingrich, in an interview on CBS, said “yes” when asked if he was calling Romney a liar in how he talks to voters on matters as varied as fundraising and policy positions.
“He ought to be candid; I don’t think he’s being candid,” the former U.S. House speaker said. “Do you really want a Massachusetts moderate who won’t level with you to run against Barack Obama, who frankly will just tear him apart?”
Responding on Fox, Romney shrugged off the attack.
“I understand Newt must be very angry and I don’t exactly understand why, but, look, I wish him well,” he said. “It’s a long road ahead. He’s a good guy.”
Looking ahead to the general election, “President Obama is in much better shape today than he was about six months ago,” David Gergen, director of Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in an interview on Bloomberg Radio’s “Bloomberg Surveillance.”
Although that doesn’t “mean he is not vulnerable, he is,” Gergen said, adding that the infighting among Republicans has benefitted the incumbent by making him “look a little more presidential.”
“The Republicans need to get a clear front-runner and someone who’s going to be anointed fairly soon if they hope to beat Obama,” Gergen said.
‘Tsunami of Negativity’
On CNN, Gingrich blamed his drop in polls on a “tsunami of negativity” created by millions of dollars in advertising against him. The ads have been paid for by a political action committee backing Romney, as well as by Paul’s campaign.
Romney, 64, said Gingrich has had “just as much difficulty” in polls in New Hampshire, where negative advertising hasn’t yet become prominent. He also said he is ready for the more aggressive campaign approach Gingrich has promised.
“If the speaker decides to come after me, why, that’s part of the process,” Romney said on Fox. “If I can’t handle this kind of attack, why, how in the world would I handle the attack that’s going to come from President Obama?”
Gingrich, 68, contended that he is regaining his footing as the voting nears.
“I think it’s going to be a very big turnout tonight,” he said on CNN. “I think we could win.”
That was a reversal of what he said a day earlier when he told reporters in Independence, Iowa: “I don’t think I’m going to win.”
Romney made his final pitch in a Des Moines theater today, before a few dozen voters, more than 40 television cameras and a crush of media. Ignoring his Republican rivals, he escalated his attacks against Obama.
“He went on the ‘Today Show’ shortly after being inaugurated and said that, if he’s not able to turn around the economy in three years, he’d be looking at a one-year proposition,” Romney said. “I’m here to collect. He’s out.”
Romney faces a growing challenge from Santorum, 53, who is the latest candidate to gain popularity in Iowa polling.
Santorum is urging Republicans not to settle for someone who doesn’t share their beliefs on such issues as ending abortions and cutting government spending just because they think that person can beat Obama this year.
“Ten days ago, the polls said I was going to finish last,” he told a crowd gathered yesterday in the lobby of a hotel in Perry, Iowa. “Polls change; convictions shouldn’t. And that’s what I bring to the equation.”
Republican voters have spent much of the past year searching for a more fiscally and socially conservative alternative to Romney, who has been unable to break a ceiling of roughly 25 percent support in most surveys. Yet after a campaign characterized by the rise and fall of several challengers, none has kept a lead over him.
‘Record Turnout’ Predicted
Iowa Governor Terry Branstad said on Bloomberg Television today that he expects a “record turnout” tonight.
“It’s a wide open race,” he said. “It’s going to come down to turnout.”
Four years ago, about 120,000 Republicans attended caucus meetings, a record.
Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans in voter registration in Iowa, while independents outnumber both parties. In 2008, roughly twice as many Democrats as Republicans turned out for their caucuses, also a record. Four years ago, then- Senator Obama of Illinois defeated then-Senator Hillary Clinton of New York; he faces no challenge in the Democratic caucuses tonight.
In the Republican race, campaign volunteers are working the phones today to urge supporters to attend tonight’s meetings. While the caucus results aren’t binding on delegates to the party’s nominating convention, they can give a candidate momentum going into the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries and eliminate those who do poorly.
A barrage of ads continued to play on local television. The candidates and their affiliated outside groups have spent $5.8 million on advertising in the state, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG; of that, $3.7 million has gone toward negative ads.
Prospective caucus-goers saw three negative ads for every two positive ones, according to the latest CMAG data available before the caucuses.
U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who has fallen in the polls since winning the Iowa Straw Poll in August, appeared today at “Rock the Caucus,” a multicandidate event at a West Des Moines high school designed to encourage participation among students of voting age.
“Tonight is your night to weigh in and make a difference,” she said.
At a separate appearance in West Des Moines, Rick Perry used war analogies to motivate his backers to turn out.
“You are on the front lines,” he said. “This is Concord. This is Omaha Beach.”
At an afternoon event, Perry told employees at the Principal Financial Group in Des Moines that he would make Washington as inconsequential in their lives as he could.
“Have my back tonight and I’ll have your back for four years in Washington,” he said.
The Iowa Poll by the Des Moines Register newspaper, released Dec. 31, showed Romney with the support of 24 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers. Paul, 76, had 22 percent and Santorum 15 percent after a surge in the final two days of sampling.
Paul’s campaign is being fueled by a cadre of well- organized, devoted supporters drawn to his libertarian, pro- state rights positions. Yesterday in Des Moines, he said the Iowa caucus results might be “small in numbers” but will “send a very big message.”
--With assistance from Michael Tackett in Des Moines, Iowa, Greg Giroux, Roger Runningen, Margaret Talev and Mark Silva in Washington and Tim Higgins in Detroit. Editors: Don Frederick, Mark Silva
To contact the reporters on this story: John McCormick in West Des Moines, Iowa at firstname.lastname@example.org; Lisa Lerer in Des Moines, Iowa at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at firstname.lastname@example.org