Sioux City, Iowa

"They’re all idiots.” It was a considered opinion, offered by a waitress at a popular northwest Iowa restaurant last week in response to my inquiry about her thoughts on the Republican presidential field. Our waitress was not a Democrat; in 2008, she caucused for Mitt Romney. And she’s interested in the current race, as she demonstrated with a succinct but sophisticated analysis of the candidates. The more she sees them, the less she likes them.

It’s not just Iowa. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken last week found that 27 percent of registered Republicans believe the Republican field is “weak/hardly any good candidates.” Another 51 percent gave the field only a lukewarm endorsement, saying that the field was “average/some good candidates,” and only 21 percent rated the field “strong/many good candidates.”

With less than three weeks to the Iowa caucuses, the race here is incredibly fluid—a fact that reflects at least some level of dissatisfaction with the choices available to voters. A Rasmussen poll taken last week found that 60 percent of likely caucusgoers are uncertain of their vote, and a Des Moines Register poll found the same thing at the end of November. Interviews up and down western Iowa last week seem to confirm that finding.

Bob Sievers, standing outside the convention hall after the final pre-caucus Republican debate last Thursday, says that electability is his top priority and he’s undecided but leaning toward Gingrich. “I probably won’t decide until the caucuses, but if I had to vote today, I’d probably vote for Newt.” Swap out “Newt” for “Rick” or “Mitt” or “Michele” and that conversation was typical of ones I had over three days last week.

There are three major questions that will determine the outcome of the caucuses on January 3. How far does Newt Gingrich fall? Does the enthusiasm for Ron Paul translate into votes? And will Rick Santorum’s old-school approach to the Iowa caucuses pay off?

The growing conventional wisdom is that Gingrich is now on the same what-goes-up-must-come-down trajectory that we’ve seen with Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain. That could well be true. Polls suggest a softening of support for Gingrich, both in Iowa and nationally. The airwaves in Iowa feature an unceasing torrent of ads attacking the former House speaker, mostly for his Beltway money-grubbing and for the idiosyncratic policy crusades that kept him busy after he left Congress. There is little doubt these ads are working. Iowa voters sometimes use lines from them nearly verbatim in conversations with fellow Republicans and reporters.

But in interviews last week, other voters here offered defenses of Gingrich that suggested a deeper investment in his candidacy—a willingness to explain or rationalize various Gingrich shortcomings or vulnerabilities, even the seemingly indefensible ones.

“When they keep drilling on the $1.6 million that Newt Gingrich took—I mean, he was a private sector man!” said Madonna Lueck of Sioux City. “That’s peanuts! How much do you think Bill Clinton makes?”

This wasn’t always the case. “I used to just cringe at his name,” she says, wrinkling her nose and shrugging her shoulders. “Just because of all of those things you heard—the baggage. The three marriages, asking his wife for a divorce on her deathbed—which isn’t even true! That was a lie. She didn’t even die! And the way things are in the world today, .  .  .  ” she says, her voice trailing off.

Doc Zortman, who says he will probably end up caucusing for Rick Santorum, is also an enthusiastic Gingrich defender. “One of the reasons Newt Gingrich is not loved by the career politicians is that he knows where the bodies are buried. And I don’t think they want him coming in there and saying—‘You know what, Nancy? We might have sat on the couch together, but I’m going to start blowing the whistle.’ ”

Are these voters anomalous, or do they suggest a broader willingness to stick with Gingrich in spite of the attacks from other candidates and the media?

Ron Paul finished fifth in the 2008 Iowa caucuses with 10 percent of the vote. In the intervening four years, his supporters have focused their efforts on a good showing here. In recent weeks he has been getting around 20 percent in polls of likely caucusgoers, and Iowa Republicans say that Paul may well have the best organization in the state.

Lynn Spetman, of Council Bluffs, is one of the thousands of Iowa Republicans to receive a Ron Paul Family Cookbook in the mail. She has never been a Paul supporter, and she won’t be supporting him this year. “It’s a folksy, family cookbook,” she says, that has some good recipes.

Brittany Fiala, the Webster County volunteer coordinator for Paul, says the campaign expects 500 volunteers from around the country to descend on Iowa December 27 for a door-knocking, phone-banking effort they are calling “Christmas with Ron Paul.” Titus Landegent, the Plymouth County coordinator, says the campaign will continue to use unconventional ways to reach voters and to get them to the caucus sites. “I put two magnetic signs on my van and I’m just driving around,” says Landegent, who has been hosting strangers at his home despite the presence of a newborn. “If it snows on caucus day, I’m going to hire a dog-sled team,” he adds with a distant smile. He may not be kidding.

Rick Santorum has approached Iowa with dogged persistence. “I think he moved his family here,” says Lueck. Santorum has visited all 99 of Iowa’s counties, and his campaign says he has attended more than 300 townhalls across the state. He has focused on social issues more than the other candidates. Santorum is also counting on the strong network of home-schoolers in Iowa, whose support helped former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee win the caucuses in 2008 with a surprising 34 percent of the vote.

“I think Santorum is being underestimated in the polls,” says Tom Mitchell, who caucused for Romney in 2008 and says he would back Santorum if he thought he could win. “I go to a lot of events, and his support out there is a lot stronger than you’re seeing in the polls.”

The answers to the three questions may determine the winner of the caucuses and shape the primary season to follow. If Mitt Romney wins Iowa after a relatively minimal effort here, he’ll be heading to New Hampshire with considerable momentum and the best national organization of any candidate. But if Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul wins, the volatility we have seen in recent months may prove to have been a harbinger of even greater uncertainty in the months to come.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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