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      GOP candidates eye Iowa as possible springboard to SC

      Photo Credit: FILE

      COLUMBIA (WACH) -- The GOP presidential candidates are getting ready for the first real contest of the primary schedule. With the Iowa caucus just days away, most candidates are hoping a strong showing in Iowa could yield momentum heading into New Hampshire and South Carolina. Public and private polling show Mitt Romney and Ron Paul in strong contention to win the caucuses, but the other candidates are making a final push in an attempt to sway undecided voters.

      In the final stretch of the Iowa caucus campaign, Mitt Romney has stepped out from behind the curtain of private fundraising events that for months shielded him from unscripted encounters with voters. Yet he still can struggle to connect with people on a personal level. That's been the rap against him since his 2008 race when he was labeled stiff and robotic. He's trying to shake that perception this time around.

      Ron Paul is running strongly in the polls and questioning why U.S. troops are in Korea and other parts of the world. In an appearance Wednesday in Newton, Paul strongly suggested U.S. forces be withdrawn from South Korea, Japan and Germany, and made the audience laugh when he questioned President Barack Obama's decision to send Marines to Australia.

      Meanwhile Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich are battling to win over a pivotal crop of undecided conservative voters in Iowa with just days to go until the caucuses.

      Most candidates are rumbling across the state in garishly painted buses with loudspeakers blaring campaign music to announce their presence in usually tranquil Iowa towns. Rick Santorum's vehicle of choice is a supporter's heavy-duty pickup truck with an aide working in the back seat. Santorum's low-key, scaled-down approach appears to be working. He's seeing a burst of momentum as Iowans give him a long-awaited look ahead of Tuesday's caucuses.

      A swaggering Rick Perry parachuted into Iowa last summer and landed at the top of the GOP presidential field. He had a job-creation message, an off-the-cuff speaking style and a fledgling campaign organization. He quickly nosedived. But lately, a more humble Texas governor has been trying to claw his way back into contention with a different approach. His pitch is tailored to tea party activists and religious conservatives. He is more disciplined and less free-wheeling when talking to voters.

      Newt Gingrich's strategy these days amounts to this: hammer home a message about jobs and the economy while wrapping himself in the mantle of Ronald Reagan. But the loquacious former House speaker keeps struggling to stay on message. He's been fielding questions about his work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac, ethics allegations and whether his three marriages make him a polygamist. The economy and jobs have sometimes been lost in the mix.

      Michele Bachmann is working to convince backers that her campaign is not in disarray after a top supporter in Iowa abandoned her to back Paul. It's a much different situation than she faced in the summer when she was riding high after a victory in the Iowa straw poll. Her slide from contender status started soon after, and she's struggled for months to reverse the trend.

      Jon Huntsman is defending his refusal to compete in the leadoff Iowa Republican precinct caucuses, focusing instead on New Hampshire. Huntsman tells CBS's "The Early Show" the formula, so far as he is concerned, is quite elementary. Says Huntsman: "They pick corn in Iowa. They actually pick presidents here in New Hampshire."

      The maneuvering underscores the fluid state of the GOP presidential race in Iowa. The caucus marks the beginning of a grueling primary schedule.

      From Iowa candidates head to New Hampshire for a January 10 primary. Then candidates swing south for South Carolina TMs First in the South Primary on January 21. Ten days later the candidates will face off in Florida.

      (The Associated Press contributed to this report.)