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Iowa Republicans prepare to caucus amid tight race for first

No more polls, no more speculation, no more spin. On Monday, Iowa voters will finally settle the state’s heated Republican contest.
Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally for campaign workers in Ottumwa, Iowa, Jan, 28, 2016. (Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC)
Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally for campaign workers in Ottumwa, Iowa, Jan, 28, 2016. 

DES MOINES, Iowa — No more polls, no more speculation, no more spin. On Monday, Iowa voters will finally settle the state’s heated Republican contest.

The stakes are high for the candidates and the party, which is engulfed in a bitter civil war heading into caucus night over the race’s current front-runners.

Donald Trump, whose iconoclastic campaign has tapped into blue-collar voter fears over illegal immigration and foreign trade, is the undisputed polling leader for now, followed by anti-establishment firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio, who has tried to appeal to a broader pool of GOP voters.

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The final Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll released Saturday evening, considered the gold standard in the state, puts Trump at 28 percent support versus 23 percent for Cruz and 15 percent for Rubio. Dr. Ben Carson, whose campaign has fallen into disarray after leading Iowa polls for a stretch, is in fourth at 10 percent.

Under Iowa’s caucus system, voters will meet at 1,681 precincts starting at 7 p.m. CT to cast their ballots after a round of speeches from supporters of the various candidates. Voters have to be registered Republicans to participate in the GOP caucus, but they can change their registration onsite.

The final days of the race have featured a number of pitched battles and widened fissures between voters pushing for Trump’s populist campaign, movement conservatives lining up behind the unyielding conservative Cruz, and more traditional GOP voters and officials who are horrified by Cruz and Trump but have yet to settle on an alternative.

Trump has used this last stretch to frequently attack Cruz, who led Iowa polls until just weeks ago. In particular, he’s zeroed in on Cruz’s Canadian birthplace and argued that it raises questions about his eligibility for president. Trump’s biggest question mark is turnout given that his campaign, more than other candidates, relies on bringing new voters who don’t normally caucus to the polls.

“Supposing [a storm hits] on Monday, so you go through some snow, OK,” he told supporters in Dubuque on Saturday. “You’re from Iowa. Are you afraid of snow?”

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Cruz has rallied social conservative leaders to his side and barnstormed the state’s 99 counties for months trying to build grassroots support.

“I am convinced the most long-lasting legacy of Barack Obama will be a new generation of leaders in the Republican Party who stand for freedom, who stand for the Constitution and who stand for the Judeo-Christian values that built this great nation,” he said at an event Friday in Ringsted.  

He’s also run into some negative press in the home stretch. The state’s longtime Republican Gov. Terry Branstad is openly campaigning against Cruz over his opposition to ethanol subsidies. Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate also sharply criticized Cruz’s campaign this week for sending out mailers warning Iowans of a “voting violation” over their failure to participate in caucuses and listing their neighbors’ purported voting history.

Rubio, who is counting on a solid performance in Iowa to give him enough momentum to break from the pack in New Hampshire on Feb. 9, has spent the closing days emphasizing his electability while playing up his faith to religious voters.

“If you caucus for me and I am our nominee, I will unite the conservative movement, I will grow the conservative movement, we will defeat the Democrats, we will turn this country around and address our issues,” he said at a Cedar Rapids rally on Sunday.

The Cruz campaign reportedly rerouted all TV spending in the final days to target Rubio, particularly over his past work on immigration reform. Rubio has charged Cruz with hypocrisy given his own ambiguous positioning on the same issue in 2013, which he said in Thursday’s debate showed his “history of calculation.”  

For the rest of the field, the goal will be to surprise in Iowa with a strong performance, or if that goal is out of reach, drag down any rivals fighting for similar voters.

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Outside groups supporting Jeb Bush, who stood at just 2 percent in the Des Moines Register poll, have spent millions of dollars attacking Rubio on the airwaves in Iowa in the hopes of preventing him from gaining traction. Bush, along with fellow governors Chris Christie and John Kasich, is hoping to launch his campaign with a top-two finish in New Hampshire rather than Iowa.

For the rest of the candidates in the field, Iowa could be the end of the line. Former winners Rick Santorum (2012) and Mike Huckabee (2008) have made little impact on the race so far, and if they can’t make it work in Iowa, they’re unlikely to become relevant competing in less friendly states like New Hampshire.