Back in campaign mode, presidential hopefuls focus

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) ? Republicans in search of their party’s presidential nomination are returning to campaign mode after a brief Christmas respite, with Rick Santorum planning a hunting trip with conservatives in Iowa and Mitt Romney phoning supporters.

With just a week until Iowa holds its leadoff caucuses and many still undecided, the final push ahead of the Jan. 3 contests was heading into a critical time. Campaigns planned new television ads and phone calls to persuade holdout caucusgoers still weighing their options.

Romney, who kept this state at arm’s length for most of the year, seemed to increase his efforts in Iowa as polls found him in a stronger position. He planned to talk with supporters in a series of telephone calls here and to New Hampshire and Florida on Monday between working on a speech that aides described as his final pitch to Iowans. Romney planned to deliver that speech Tuesday evening and then set out on a bus tour of Iowa.

However, he was to share the highways with Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. All scheduled bus tours to start then, too.

Each is running out of time and looking to derail Rep. Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who seems to have the most sophisticated network of volunteers ready to organize ahead of the caucuses. Paul was to return to Iowa this week to meet with supporters he has kept in touch with since his unsuccessful run in 2008.

Others, too, were ready to turn on their own political machines and had fresh ads ready to air.

Gingrich, who last week criticized the negative tone of the campaign, was ready to directly challenge Romney on the economy, an issue Romney has made central to his campaign. Gingrich’s standing in public and private polls has slipped as he faced unrelenting criticism from the candidates and their allies.

Gingrich was expected to use clips from Romney’s previous campaigns distancing himself from President Ronald Reagan and pitch Gingrich’s economic plan as “Reaganomics 2.0.” Gingrich also was expected to compare Romney’s tax plan with his own.

Santorum, meanwhile, planned to announce support from another wave of Iowa conservatives. He scheduled a pheasant hunting trip in Adel for Monday afternoon. While he trails in polls and has not spent significant money on ads, Santorum is hoping his nonstop courtship of Iowans yields a late surge. He visited all 99 of Iowa’s counties during the summer ? an accomplishment Bachmann has feverishly tried to replicate.

Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota, last week darted through small towns, reminding voters that Santorum lost his 2006 re-election bid in a blowout and that Paul’s foreign policy views were outside the party’s orthodoxy. Looking to recapture voters’ interest, her plan was to return to hand-to-hand campaigning on Tuesday.

Perry, too, was looking to keep up his message: his rivals are insiders unable to change Washington. He planned to return to his tour bus on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman kept his focus on New Hampshire. Early in the campaign, he said he would not compete in Iowa and instead make his start in New Hampshire, which comes second on the nominating calendar.