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    Tight Republican Race in First US Presidential Nominating Contest

    Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a town hall meeting, in Sioux City, Iowa, December 31, 2011.
    Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a town hall meeting, in Sioux City, Iowa, December 31, 2011.
    Michael Bowman

    Republican presidential candidates are making final campaign pushes in the central U.S. state of Iowa, before the nation's first event to pick the party’s nominee for the November election.  A new public-opinion poll shows a surprising late surge by social-conservative Rick Santorum, who had been largely ignored by analysts and the news media until recent days.  

    A new poll shows former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Texas Congressman Ron Paul virtually tied for first place among likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa, with 24 percent and 22 percent backing respectively.

    The poll by Iowa's most widely read newspaper, the Des Moines Register, also shows former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum at 15 percent - the first time he has gotten double-digit support in a voter poll.

    Santorum is best known for opposing abortion and any expansion of civil rights for gay people. His surge in popularity has led to a frenzy of news media attention, as the candidate noted during a campaign stop Saturday.

    "I doubt you would see all of the cameras here or the press corps that is here if it was not for the fact our [poll] numbers are beginning to change. Why? Because Iowans are beginning to lead," he said.

    Because the Register poll was conducted late last week, Santorum's support could be even stronger now, if his momentum continues to build. In the final days of the Iowa campaign, the former senator has stuck to his message of infusing faith into the nation's politics.

    "All of us have rights given to us by God. And our obligation is then to go and live lives consistent with God's laws," said Santorum. "What comes with rights? Responsibility."

    Romney, who narrowly leads the Register poll, continues to stress economic opportunity forged by individual initiative, free from government intervention.

    "We are free in America to choose our course in life.  We are a merit society, an opportunity society," said Romney. "By virtue of our education, our hard work, our willingness to take risk, we can accomplish whatever we hope to accomplish."

    Ron Paul, December 29, 2011.
    Ron Paul, December 29, 2011.

    Virtually tied with Romney is Ron Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican who distinguishes himself from the field of candidates by advocating a severely limited role for the U.S. government at home and abroad.

    "Seventy percent of the American people want us out of Afghanistan," said Paul. "It [the Afghan war] is bankrupting us. We spent four-trillion dollars that went into debt in these last 10 years."

    Paul spoke on the Fox News Sunday television program.

    The Register poll showed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with support of 12 percent of likely caucus goers, followed by Texas Governor Rick Perry with 11 percent.

    Iowa Republicans gather Tuesday at precinct meetings to select a favorite candidate.  The eventual Republican nominee will face President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in November.

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