There are only hours left for Iowans to choose their Republican presidential nominee. The top two candidates seem set for a dead heat finish, while a third is trying to make the best use of a last minute and surprising surge forward in polls.

The Republican presidential competition has been a volatile one, with six of the top seven contestants in or sharing the lead at one point or the other... so much so that the poll scenario in Iowa lacks clarity even at the eleventh hour.

The latest polls, one conducted by Insider Advantage on Jan. 1 and another by PPP (D) on Dec. 31, puts Mitt Romney and Ron Paul in the top two places, while Rick Santorum is close behind. According to the former poll, Romney will win Iowa (23 percent) while the latter predicts a Ron Paul victory (20 percent). Both polls, however, place the second lead runner - Santorum - just behind (18 percent). Newt Gingrich, who once topped the Iowan polls, is struggling to fight back after his ratings plummeted. He is currently fourth.

The top two candidates were consistently placed all through the Iowa polls over the last three weeks. However, according to a CNN Insider poll, a majority of the people could still change their minds and that makes things more difficult to predict.

However, the fight for top spot is undoubtedly between Romney and Paul. A chance of Santorum winning the caucus is remote; although it could be that he improves his position.

Santorum, who has seen a surge in his ratings lately, remains third choice and is actually surging more on the weakness of other candidates, than on his strengths. Meanwhile, third place is an important goal for Gingrich, who has lost favor with the voters following his rivals' negative ad campaigns.  

A win in Iowa is important for all the candidates, including Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, as it would dramatically boost their acceptability in other states. The winner will also get more media attention, more funds and further improve their chances of fighting Obama.

Where the Big Two Stand: Though both Paul and Romney are contesting for the same ticket and claim to have Republican credentials, they could not be more different from each other. They are poles apart in ideology, character, support base, values and almost everything else. In fact, even on issues like gay marriages, abortion and other social issues where they seem to agree, they differ in the arguments they make.

1. Mitt Romney: A former Massachusetts Gov., Mitt Romney is the most consistent of all the candidates. He has remained among the top three, almost continuously and in almost all the polls. According to his campaign, his biggest strength is his electability... against President Obama. Romney's brigade has successfully portrayed him as the only candidate who can beat Obama in a head-to-head fight. According to recent Rasmussen Reports, he is 6 points ahead of President Obama. This should give him an edge over Ron Paul.

Romney is a pro-establishment candidate and has taken moderate stands on most issues. An analysis of his stands on various issues shows he normally goes by popular sentiments and has seldom made extreme statements on any issue. People, therefore, do not really fear him for his policies.

In addition, he has received good coverage from mainstream media organizations, primarily for reasons ranging from his consistency in polls to his moderate and pro-establishment image. This makes him a dear candidate to them.

Another strong point for Romney is his strong organization and finance. He is the top-most fund raiser among the Republican contenders.

Drawbacks:  Romney's pro-establishment image makes him unacceptable to voters who hold the existing capitalist establishment responsible for the current U.S. economic crisis. Moreover, unlike his rival Ron Paul, he lacks a strong ideological base and doesn't find it too difficult to change his views on any subject, according to situations. His flip-flops may make him less trustworthy. His moderate stands also make him less acceptable to conservatives.

Check out a video of Romney:

2. Ron Paul: Ron Paul is the surprise package of the Iowan caucus. He has positioned himself, across a number of issues, in clear contrast to his fellow contestants and consistently, unlike the others, has seen sharp ups and downs.

His biggest strength is his ideology. He has a solid ideological base and has remained committed to his beliefs throughout his career and life. He is anti-war, believes in less governance, non-interventionist foreign policies and argues for governance based in the U.S. constitution. This has helped him gather some highly loyal followers, who believe his policies are just right for the future of America.

He also appeals to youngsters who are looking for a drastic change in the way the country is currently governed. His views on war and drug use have turned him into something of a youth icon. Most importantly, he does not have any corruption-related allegations surrounding him.

In addition, his campaign and organizational skills are his rivals' envy; he has, so far, put up the most systematic and disciplined campaign, among the Republican candidates.

Drawbacks: Ron Paul's views do look unacceptable to a majority of voters nationwide because they are very different from the others. Paul's biggest challenge will be in explaining his extremist or non-conventional stands to voters. He could improve his chances in Iowa, where he has a platform from which to reach out to a large base of Republican voters and convince them.

He has been criticized for being an isolationist, by his rivals, for views on war and foreign policy. This has affected his acceptability ratings in national polls, leading him to be considered unelectable against President Obama - he stands third (between 10-15 percent) in Republican National polls. The latest news about the stands he took on issues like workplace sexual harassment, HIV/AIDS and newsletter scandals has furthered his image as an extremist.

Apart from this Ron Paul has received comparatively less attention from the mainstream media. In fact, the coverage he has received recently has been for, perhaps, incorrect reasons. This has prompted his team to turn to the social media to help spread his message, something they have found a measure of success in.

Funders: Mitt Romney has the most funds from corporate establishments like Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse (Switzerland), Morgan Stanley, Barclays (UK), Bank of America and JP Morgan, while Ron Paul's top contributions are from the U.S military forces, according to an opensecrets.org report.

According to polls, Romney and Paul stand equally capable of winning in Iowa. However, considering that this is a caucus and caucusing can bring in unexpected results, there are chances for surprises here.

The last word... much depends on those votes who are as yet undecided. In the final analysis, it could be that they have the last laugh.