DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - 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.
He's in the midst of a four-day trek that he hopes will seal victory here and give him momentum heading into the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary, the closest thing to a must-win state for the former Massachusetts governor.
On the second day of his bus tour, Romney turned out big crowds at stops in northern and eastern Iowa, focusing on more populous areas and counties he won four years ago.
"We have a choice in this coming election of what kind of America we're going to have," Romney said at J's Home Cooking in Cedar Falls, before meeting a crowd of 500 in Mason City. "It's not just about replacing a president. It's about saving the soul of America."
He didn't acknowledge his rivals but an outside group aligned with him rolled out a new ad against Gingrich that asks, "Haven't we had enough mistakes?" and notes the former House speaker's past admissions of judgment lapses.
As Romney sailed above it all, the fight raged among his rivals elsewhere in the state, where all six candidates competing in the caucuses are spending almost all their time for the next five days.
Looking to capitalize on his burst of support in new polls, Santorum made a play for tea party backers lining up behind Paul by arguing that the Texas congressman is longer on promising sweeping change than enacting it. "The guy has passed one bill in 20 years. What makes you think he can do any of these things?" Santorum said.
He added: "We need someone who has the bold, sharp contrast not just to win the election but govern the country, not somebody who is just a little better."
And, Bachmann castigated Paul's opposition to military intervention in Iran as "dangerous." She also suggested that his opposition to the federal war on drugs amounted to supporting the legalization of cocaine and heroin.
Perry focused his criticism on all the others on the right, saying: "There are other conservatives in this contest. I readily agree. But their records don't always square with the rhetoric." And, as he argued that he was the only true outsider in the race, Perry noted that four of his rivals — Gingrich, Paul, Santorum and Bachmann — have a combined 63 years of experience in Washington.
"I am asking you to vote your conservative values," Perry implored.
The closest anyone got to criticizing Romney directly was when Perry was asked in Cedar Rapids about family dynasties and cited, among other families, the Romneys.
In response, Perry mentioned his own modest upbringing and said: "I'm glad you gave me the opportunity to reflect my differences with Mitt."
The worst Romney faced from his rivals were veiled shots.
Santorum said Republicans must draw a clear contrast with Obama, rather than nominate a Republican with moderate tendencies out of political expedience.
"We need someone who has the bold, sharp contrasts, not just to win the election but to govern the country. Not just someone who is a little bit better," Santorum told supporters.
Perry was asked about family dynasties and the questioner cited, among other families, the Romneys. Perry stopped short of criticizing Romney's privileged upbringing. He mentioned his own humble beginning in small-town Texas before adding: "I'm glad you gave me the opportunity to reflect my differences with Mitt."
Gingrich, for his part, spent the day trying to wrap himself in President Ronald Reagan's cloak, announcing the backing of the late president's son, Michael, and, a day earlier, support from Reagan economic adviser Arthur Laffer.
Even as the polls show him sliding, Gingrich projected an upbeat image.
"The strategy of focusing on jobs and economic growth, staying positive and being pretty relentless in answering questions at every meeting is working," he insisted.
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott, Mike Glover, Kasie Hunt, Brian Bakst and Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this report.