Republican voters in the Midwestern state of Iowa hold their party caucus in six weeks, the first actual voting test for the Republican Party’s presidential contenders. Even as the caucus draws near, the race for the presidential nomination appears as muddled as ever.
The Republican presidential contenders will increasingly focus on two important early contests in the presidential race - the Iowa caucuses on January 3 and the New Hampshire primary on January 10.
In the latest national poll by the USA Today newspaper and the Gallup Organization, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has surged into first place with 22 percent of Republican voters backing him. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is right behind with 21 percent, followed by Georgia businessman Herman Cain with 16 percent and Texas Congressman Ron Paul at nine percent. The rest of the field trails in single digits.
“The Republican race has been the most chaotic that I have ever seen and the most unpredictable," said Stuart Rothenberg, the editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, a non-partisan political newsletter. "The race in one respect is pretty clear: a quarter of the Republican Party wants Mitt Romney and the other three-quarters want to have nothing to do with him.”
Herman Cain had been seen as a top rival to Romney until recently when he was forced to respond to allegations of sexual harassment dating back to the late 1990’s.
Cain also had some awkward moments on foreign policy including a brief memory lapse when asked to comment on President Barack Obama’s policy on Libya.
Cain has slipped a bit in the polls but remains defiant on the campaign trail.
“You know what makes the liberals mad and you know what makes some of my competitors mad? All of the junk that they have thrown at me the last two weeks and I’m still smiling and I’m still inspired!” he said.
ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd says Cain has been hurt in recent weeks, which in part explains the rise of Newt Gingrich in the polls.
“I think his star has faded and so now I think it is a two-person race, fascinating, between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney after all that has gone on over the summer,” said Dowd.
A recent survey of Iowa Republicans shows Gingrich, Romney, Cain and Paul all bunched near the top of the rankings, where a victory could give one of the Republican candidates a huge boost.
But a Bloomberg News survey found that 60 percent of Republicans who plan to vote in the Iowa caucuses could still change their minds, suggesting a fluid and uncertain race.
Analyst Rothenberg says the Republican race remains unpredictable because so many conservative Republicans still seem reluctant to support Mitt Romney.
“They don’t see him as instinctively conservative," said Rothenberg. "They think he will say whatever you want him to say or whatever he thinks that you want him to say, and that makes them nervous. If and when he gets into the White House, then they can’t be sure he’s going to pursue an agenda that they will really like.”
The Iowa caucuses begin a process of Republicans choosing a party nominee to face off against President Obama in November of 2012.