DES MOINES, Iowa—With time running short, Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich battled Thursday to win over a pivotal crop of undecided conservative voters. Of all the candidates, only Mitt Romney seemed to largely escape attack as he worked to win a state that long seemed out of reach until this week.
"Don't settle for what's not good enough to save the country," the newly ascendant Santorum implored Iowans at city hall in Coralville, urging voters to put conservative principles above everything else and suggesting that his rivals, and specifically Ron Paul, lacked them.
For the first time, though, the former Pennsylvania senator became a target.
"When he talks about fiscal conservatism, every now and then it leaves me scratching my head because he was a prolific earmarker," Perry, the Texas governor, said of Santorum as the day began, referring to special spending projects members of Congress seek. "He loaded up his bill with Pennsylvania pork.'"
Santorum defended the practice as part of lawmakers' constitutional role as appropriators, telling CNBC that he owed it to Pennsylvanians to bring money to the state. He said earmarking became abused and that he would support a ban on them if he were president.
Perry also slapped at Santorum in a radio ad and in a new TV commercial that lumps him in with Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Paul and says: "The fox guarding the henhouse is like asking a congressman to fix Washington: bad idea."
The maneuvering underscored the fluid — if not convoluted — state of the GOP presidential race as Tuesday's caucuses loom while cultural conservatives and evangelical Republicans, who make up the base of the electorate here, continue to be divided. That lack of unity paves the way for someone who is seen as less consistently conservative.
Five days out, public and private polling show Romney and Paul in strong contention to win the caucuses, with coalitions of support cobbled together from across the Republican political spectrum and their get-out-the-vote operations — beefed up from their failed 2008 bids — at the ready. They're the only two with the money and the organizations necessary to ensure big turnouts on Tuesday.
Three others — Santorum, Perry and Gingrich — will have to rely largely on momentum to carry supporters to precinct caucuses. Each was working to convince fickle conservatives that he alone would satisfy those who yearn for a nominee who would adhere strictly to GOP orthodoxy.
Bachmann, meanwhile, worked to convince backers that her cash-strapped campaign was not in disarray after a top supporter in Iowa abandoned her to back Paul.
After state Sen. Kent Sorenson bolted as her Iowa campaign chairman, Bachmann continued to bleed staff, losing her Iowa political director, Wes Enos, on Thursday. Some evangelical pastors have said they've urged her to quit the race.
Bachmann condemned Sorenson for quitting, and defiantly vowed to continue in the race.
"Iowans aren't told who to vote for. Iowans are independent and they're going to make their decisions," Bachmann said in Des Moines, on the last day of a 10-day tour of Iowa's 99 counties.
Ads, mostly negative, flooded television and radio. They filled mailboxes, too.
No less than five new TV ads were rolled out Thursday, with Romney, for one, releasing a 60-second, optimistic commercial promoting his vision for America and illustrating his confidence with his standing in the primary race. He was staying far from the fray and looking toward the general election.
"In the campaign to come, the American ideals of economic freedom and opportunity need a clear and unapologetic defense. And I intend to make it because I have lived it," Romney says in the commercial that includes patriotic images and scenes from his June campaign announcement in New Hampshire.