Iowa a toss-up as caucuses arrive

New numbers from Public Policy Polling (PPP) show Iowa as too close to call with the Republican presidential caucuses arriving Tuesday.

The PPP poll finds Ron Paul with a slight lead at 20 percent, Mitt Romney at 19 percent and Rick Santorum at 18 percent. Newt Gingrich comes in at 14 percent, followed by Rick Perry at 10 percent, Michele Bachmann at 8 percent, Jon Huntsman at 4 percent and Buddy Roemer at 2 percent.

The survey indicates that the caucuses are largely up in the air and reinforces recent polls that show Santorum surging in the final days of campaigning. A former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, Santorum has made Iowa the key focus of his quest for the GOP nomination, having visited all of the state’s 99 counties.

Santorum has risen 8 points since a PPP poll released last week. At the same time, Iowa-born Michele Bachmann, a congresswoman from neighboring Minnesota, seems to have lost support among social conservatives to Santorum.

After having invested relatively little time and capital in Iowa earlier this year, Romney in the last several weeks has made a strong push in the state as he hopes to essentially wrap up the nomination early. But even if Romney doesn’t win the Hawkeye State, a second- or third-place finish, coupled with a Santorum or Paul win, could help him create distance from the rest of the pack, especially Gingrich and Perry, who may have the money to compete beyond the early round of primary states.

It is uncertain if Santorum, who until last week was largely seen as a lower-tier candidate, has sufficient funding and organization to be a factor in such states as Florida, which holds its vote on Jan. 31,  and on the Mar. 6 Super Tuesday when 10 states have their primary elections.

After Tuesday’s Iowa vote, attention will turn to New Hampshire and that state’s first-in-the-nation primary on Jan. 10. A Boston Globe poll released last week shows Romney with a strong lead in the Granite State at 39 percent, followed by Paul and Gingrich tied at 17 percent. However, a surprise outcome in Iowa could create momentum for other contenders and shake up the primary vote in New Hampshire and beyond.

One candidate who won’t be counting on a strong finish in Iowa is former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who has opted to skip that state’s caucuses and instead focus on making a splash in New Hampshire.

In an appearance Sunday on ABC News “This Week,” Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said Huntsman “made a tragic mistake by not coming and campaigning here.”

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