Advocating on Behalf of the American Military and Defense on the War on Terror polling before the caucuses from Des Moines (or Dez Moynease for Easterns unfamiliar with flyover country) is out and shows that voters are getting more comfortable with Mitt Romney, even as social conversatives begin a fliratation with Rick Santorum.

© 2012, Des Moines Register & Tribune Co.

The Des Moines Register’s latest Iowa Poll shows a surprise three-way match-up in contention to win the Iowa Republican caucuses: Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum.

Santorum, who has been largely invisible in the polls throughout the campaign season, is now beating the other evangelical choices and has a clear shot at victory Tuesday night.

But political analysts note there’s little time for Santorum to cash in and regroup before New Hampshire, where voters weigh in nine days from now, while Romney is positioned to replicate what he’s done in Iowa in all the early states.


In four days of polling, Romney leads at 24 percent, Paul has 22 percent and Rick Santorum, 15 percent.

But if the final two days of polling stand alone, the order reshuffles: Santorum elbows out Paul for second.

“Few saw this bombshell coming,” GOP strategist David Polyansky said. “In an already unpredictable race this is another stunning turn of political fortune.”

What makes Santorum’s growth spurt particularly striking is his last-second rise: He averaged 10 points after the first two nights of polling, but doubled that during the second two nights. Looking just at the final day of polling, he was just one point down from Romney’s 23 percent on Friday.

Paul has marched higher in every Iowa Poll, but his momentum may have stalled last week. His support eroded from 29 percent on the first day of polling to 16 percent the last.

As for the rest of the field, over the four days of polling, Newt Gingrich is at 12 percent, Rick Perry, 11 percent, and Michele Bachmann, 7 percent. Their support remained relatively steady over the four days.

But in the month since the Register’s last poll, in late November, and in the 31 days since Gingrich boldly said in Iowa, “I’m going to be the nominee,” he has experienced a screeching double-digit drop.

Perry climbs 5 points since the last poll, but is stuck in fifth place. Bachmann falls 1 point, leaving her in a very poor position, said the Register’s pollster, J. Ann Selzer.

The final Iowa Poll before the caucuses is seen as a bellwether for Tuesday night’s first-in-the-nation voting. Still, the race is fluid, as 41 percent have a first choice but said they could still be persuaded to support another candidate. Fifty-one percent said their minds are made up.

The poll, conducted by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, was based on telephone interviews with 602 likely Republican caucusgoers Dec. 27-30. The margin of error for the full four days is plus or minus 4 percentage points. For the last two days, 302 likely GOP caucusgoers were surveyed, and the margin of error is plus or minus 5.6 percentage points.

There’s so much volatility in Iowa that the numbers could change in a snap, said GOP strategist Mike Murphy of California, who has advised presidential candidates Lamar Alexander in 1995 and John McCain in 2000 but is currently unaligned with any campaign.

“Polling is a nightmare right now,” he said.