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In Iowa And Beyond, Republicans In Final Push Before Contests Begin

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The Republican presidential contest remains fluid less than three weeks before the caucuses and primaries begin. Nationwide, nearly one in five GOP voters is still undecided. And in Iowa, candidates are making their final push before the Jan. 3 caucuses.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on Friday told workers at a metal fabricating plant in Sioux City, Iowa: "I am running in this race because I understand how to get middle-class Americans prosperous again, working again, buying things, and putting more Americans back to work."

Romney told the Missouri Valley Steel workers, some of them wearing hard hats as they watched him speak, that their plant reminded him of the company his wife's father used to run, as well as some of the companies he invested in as the leader of a private equity firm.

Romney argues his successful business background makes him uniquely qualified to lift the fortunes of America's struggling middle class.

"I want to use the experience I have in the world of the free enterprise system to make sure that America gets working again," he said.

Romney trails former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in most Iowa polls. But the gap between them has recently narrowed.

Mindful of his second-place finish in Iowa in 2008, Romney has tried hard not to raise expectations. But he made clear to supporters that he wants a strong finish Jan. 3.

"I know that the caucus site at the high school gets full, so get there early," he implored potential caucus-goers. "I need you guys to get there."

Missouri Valley Steel employee Shari Blackburn said she liked what Romney had to say, but that he hadn't yet won her support.

"I'm kind of torn between two candidates at this point," she said. "I really like him. But I also like Newt. So it might be a coin toss the day of the caucus. I'm not sure."

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas also is polling well in Iowa, while other candidates are struggling just to get attention.

Rep. Michele Bachmann of neighboring Minnesota launched a bus tour Friday, with a promise to visit all 99 Iowa counties over 10 days. Bachmann argues that Gingrich and Romney have strayed too far from the conservative line on issues like health care and global warming to pose an effective challenge to President Obama.

"So you have the Newt-Romney," Bachmann says, using a term for the two-candidates-as-one that she has used at recent debates, including Thursday night's in Sioux City. "And then you have Michele Bachmann. And they've said this is a two-man race, and I would agree. It's Newt-Romney versus Michele Bachmann, and I'm the conservative alternative."

After his campaign stop in Sioux City, Romney flew to South Carolina, where he earlier got a key endorsement from the state's Republican governor, Nikki Haley, who won her own election in 2010 with strong Tea Party support.

Romney and Haley were scheduled to campaign together in South Carolina on Saturday. South Carolina holds its primary Jan. 21, following only the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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