Dec. 26, 2011 -- Just eight days away from the Iowa caucus, Republican candidates are taking their campaigns to the Hawkeye state hunting for votes.
Rick Santorum will start it off hunting for pheasants with some Iowa politicos in Adel, Iowa. Rep. Michele Bachmann will resume her 99-county bus tour on Tuesday. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry will visit a series of small towns hoping to boost his campaign.
But the real race is between Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, all of whom are stepping up the offensive ahead of the nation's first casting call.
"I think this race right now – unless somebody changes the dynamic in Iowa – is a race between Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, all of whom have tremendous baggage and all of whom a majority of Republicans have worries about. But it's going to be one of the three of those," Republican strategist and ABC News political contributor Matthew Dowd said on "Good Morning America" today.
Paul this week will likely face a barrage of questions about his newsletters in the 1980s and 1990s containing racist, anti-semitic and anti-gay screeds.
The Texas congressman says he did not write them or read them, and he has disavowed the controversial content. But in the 1990s, he defended the newsletters, saying critics were taking excerpts out of context, and he seemed proud of them.
"I also put out a political type of business investment newsletter that sort of covered all these areas. And it covered a lot about what was going on in Washington, and financial events, and especially some of the monetary events," Paul said in a 1995 C-Span interview.
Gingrich, who needs to do well in Iowa, is pushing the story and became the first candidate on Friday to take a swipe at Paul for those controversial newsletters, asking him to explain their content.
"I think that Congressman Paul has to explain his own situation and how he could have had a decade of newsletters that had his name on it that he apparently wasn't aware of," the former House Speaker said. "I think that somebody should say to him 'OK, how much money did you make from the newsletters?' These things are really nasty, and he didn't know about it? Wasn't aware of it? But he's sufficiently ready to be president? It strikes me it raises some fundamental questions about him."
Gingrich, however, faces his own set of problems, particularly concerns about his organizational skills.
The Virginia resident failed to submit the 10,000 signatures required to secure a place on the ballot for the Republican primary in his state of residence. Only Romney and Paul will be on that ballot.
Gingrich's campaign director said the candidate likened the debacle to Pearl Harbor, where more than 2,000 Americans were killed.
"Newt and I agreed that the analogy is December 1941: We have experienced an unexpected set-back, but we will re-group and re-focus with increased determination, commitment and positive action," Gingrich's national campaign director Michael Krull wrote on Facebook.
A Gingrich aide said Krull was referring to "not necessarily just the attack, but the idea we faced a setback and we must regroup, we must move ahead."
Though the analogy may be slightly far-fetched, GOP strategists like Dowd say Gingrich will likely overcome the hurdle.
"Newt has a great capacity to be forgiven and this time and he's got a thick Teflon on him that the other candidates who dropped off didn't," Dowd said.
Gingrich continues to top the polls, though his lead over Romney has narrowed in recent weeks. In Gallup's latest tracking poll, Gingrich was only three percentage points ahead of the former Massachusetts governor, considerably narrower than the 15-point lead he enjoyed in early December.
Gingrich is helped by the fact that his top two contenders both carry their own set of baggage. As Paul faces questions about his newsletters, Romney continues to have trouble getting the base to rally behind him.
"It's not the carry-on kind of baggage," said Democratic strategist James Carville. "This is the kind of stuff you got to check. It's a lot of baggage."
Though he may struggle in Iowa, Romney does have a sizeable advantage in New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first primary. A new Boston Globe poll released Sunday showed the former Massachusetts governor garnering 39 percent of the vote among the state's likely Republican voters. Gingrich and Paul tied for second place, with each garnering 17 percent of the vote.