Thousands of Iowa Republicans cast the first ballots of the 2012 Presidential contest on Tuesday, with front-runner Mitt Romney locked in a tight race with Rick Santorum and Ron Paul that remains unpredictable because many voters still hadn’t settled on a favourite candidate.

On Tuesday night, Republicans will gather in living rooms, high school gymnasiums and local libraries to start the process of picking the party’s nominee to challenge President Barack Obama in the November 6, 2012 election. In each precinct caucus, voters will urge their friends and neighbours to support a preferred candidate.

The caucuses could winnow the seven-candidate field of Republicans seeking the party’s nomination in a race that has seen numerous twists and turns. It’s the first in a gruelling series of State-by-State primary elections and caucuses that stretch to the end of June.

Only three or four candidates typically make it out of Iowa with enough momentum and money to continue in the race.

After weeks of face-to-face campaigning and millions of dollars in mostly negative advertising, Republican presidential hopefuls made last-minute appeals to undecided voters.

A confident Mr. Romney, the favourite of the party establishment, told a rally in Marion, Iowa, on Monday, “We’re going to win this thing,” predicting the caucuses will kick off a process that will make him the Republican nominee.

He largely ignored his rivals, focusing his attacks on Mr. Obama who he said has “become a great divider, the great complainer, the great excuse giver, the great blamer.”

Whether the former Massachusetts Governor and multimillionaire businessman would win the Iowa caucuses is far from clear.

The two who appeared most likely to challenge Mr. Romney for the Iowa victory were Mr. Santorum, a former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania who is a favourite of cultural conservatives, and libertarian-leading Representative Ron Paul of Texas. Most polls in recent days have put Mr. Romney and Mr. Paul atop the field in Iowa, with Mr. Santorum in third and rapidly gaining ground. More than a third of all potential caucus-goers said they could yet change their minds. Texas Governor Rick Perry, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann all trailed.

Mr. Romney faces the same challenge he did in 2008-winning over a conservative base that’s uncomfortable with his moderate past. In 2008, socially conservative voters united behind former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Baptist Minister, denying Mr. Romney a first place finish and contributing to his eventual defeat in the nominating contest to Senator John McCain.

Mr. Romney has been slow to win broad support in the party because of his moderate positions on social issues such as abortion and gay rights in the past and reforms to health care that were instituted in Massachusetts when he was Governor.

That overhaul of the health system served, to a degree, as the blueprint of the national reforms Mr. Obama pushed through Congress. Most Republican voters want to see the health care reforms rescinded, especially the requirement that everyone buy medical insurance.

Mr. Romney has roughly the same amount of support in polls as he did in 2008, when he lost the race with 25 per cent of the Iowa vote amid scepticism over his Mormon faith and his reversals on some social issues. This year, he has been counting on the Republican conservative base splintering in a multi-candidate field.

Sounding increasingly optimistic, Mr. Santorum portrayed himself in television ads as “a full spectrum conservative.”

“Do not settle for less than what America needs to transform this country. Moderate candidates who try to appeal to moderates end up losing,” Mr. Santorum said on Monday in a slap at Mr. Romney.

This time, Mr. Romney’s trying to win Iowa by arguing he’s the most electable candidate against a vulnerable Mr. Obama a pitch that’s winning over conservatives who desperately want to beat the President. Mr. Obama is weighed down with a stagnant U.S. economy that has been slow to recover from the 2007-2009 Great Recession.

Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Perry and Ms. Bachmann rose to the top of the Republican field over the past months as conservative alternatives to the more moderate Mr. Romney, but they quickly faded under closer media and voter scrutiny.

Mr. Paul and Mr. Santorum were fighting against the notion in Republican circles that their bases of support are narrow and that neither would be able to put together the diverse voting coalition necessary to beat Mr. Obama. Mr. Paul attracts those who like his libertarian message of States’ rights and limited central government, while Mr. Santorum an anti-abortion crusader is popular among Christian conservatives who make up a large segment of the Republican base.

Mr. Paul has steadily gained ground in Iowa in the last two months, but his support has levelled off in the wake of sharp attacks over his non-interventionist foreign policy, including his opposition to using a military strike to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

The criticism didn’t dissuade Mr. Paul from telling cheering supporters in Iowa: “Just listen to some of the candidates. They are willing to start bombing Iran right now. One thing is for certain, this country does not need another war.”

Mr. Santorum, who had largely been ignored by his rivals when he was lagging in the polls, came under fire from Mr. Perry and Mr. Paul for backing spending bills for pet projects in his home State and voting repeatedly for raising the U.S. debt ceiling while in Congress.

Iowa’s conservatives have yet to coalesce around a single candidate. The State’s large evangelical bloc is splitting support among Mr. Santorum, Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Perry and Ms. Bachmann.

Mr. Gingrich shot to the top of the polls in early December but has since taken a steep tumble after being the target of millions of dollars worth of negative television advertisements from Mr. Romney’s deep-pocketed allies.

“I don’t think I’m going to win, I think when you look at the numbers that volume of negativity has done its damage,” he said of the Iowa caucuses.

By nightfall, Mr. Gingrich was offering a more upbeat assessment after one of his precinct captains complained during a telephone town hall that he was dispirited by the prediction.

“We may pull off one of the great upsets in the history of the Iowa caucuses,” Mr. Gingrich said in Davenport, urging supporters to help him.

How many people turn out to vote will help drive the results. In 2008, more than 120,000 Republicans showed up, a record.

After Tuesday’s vote, Mr. Romney, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum planned to depart immediately for New Hampshire. Mr. Romney holds a commanding lead in polls there, and will be in a strong position to win even if he doesn’t pull out a victory in Iowa. Paul plans to join his rivals in New Hampshire later in the week. The primary is on January 10, 2012.

The seventh Republican, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, is not contesting Iowa and has focussed almost solely on New Hampshire.

Mr. Perry and Ms. Bachmann don’t plan to compete in New Hampshire, instead heading straight from Iowa to the first-in-the-Southern States for January 21, 2012 in South Carolina. Mr. Romney also plans to visit South Carolina this week, with campaign stops on Thursday and Friday.

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