(Reuters) - The Republican White House hopefuls launched a two-day dash to the finish in Iowa on Sunday, with front-runner Mitt Romney poised for a strong showing that could set him on the path to the nomination.
Romney held a slight edge over rival Ron Paul in Iowa's closely watched Des Moines Register poll, a crucial barometer of voter sentiment in the first contest in the state-by-state battle to pick a challenger to President Barack Obama in 2012.
Even a strong second place in Iowa would be good news for the former Massachusetts governor, as Paul is unlikely to be able to compete with him in later contests in New Hampshire and other states.
Romney, who spent millions in Iowa in 2008 only to lose, has not campaigned hard here until recent days.
He picked up the endorsement on Sunday of Iowa's Quad-City Times newspaper, which praised his business background as a former head of a private equity firm and said he had the best chance of beating Obama.
We do not want to see the president face a token challenge in 2012, the newspaper said. Romney presents a far more serious challenge than any other caucus contender.
Michele Bachmann, who could face the end of the line if she does badly in Iowa, went to church to woo the critical Christian conservative vote, which may be split among her, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich.
Bachmann has sunk to the bottom of polls and is beset by a lack of money and staff desertions.
On this January 1, 2012, I admonish you, don't for one moment think that your adversity is one that cannot be scaled, Bachmann told churchgoers at a service in Oskaloosa, making biblical references to underdog Israelites defeating their enemies.
Santorum surged past Newt Gingrich into third place in the Des Moines Register poll as his momentum built in the final days of a close race that has seen a series of candidates rise and fall in the polls.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said on Fox News Sunday he was not focused on winning evangelicals, although he has aired several television ads aimed directly at gaining their support.
I've watched a lot of his commercials and I really like him. He is a lot like Bush, and I really liked Bush, said worshipper Alicia Vanderveer at the church where Bachmann spoke.
Romney attended a Mormon church service in Iowa, a spokeswoman said.
STRONG CASH HAUL FOR ROMNEY
Romney was likely to surpass $20 million in fund-raising in the final three months of 2011, a Republican source said. That amount that would almost certainly put him far in front of his Republican rivals.
A win in Iowa for Romney, combined with a victory in his stronghold of New Hampshire on Jan. 10, could put him on a path to clinch the nomination early. It would make him the first Republican who is not an incumbent president to win both of the party's first two contests.
Romney is distrusted by some conservatives who remember his past support for abortion rights and for a state healthcare plan similar to Obama's federal overhaul.
Romney just has to prove that he's conservative enough for me, said Eleanor Stump, a 70-year-old Tea Party member from Sheldon, Iowa. I don't like the way he's flip-flopped.
Stump said she had initially supported Herman Cain, who dropped out of the race after charges of an extramarital affair, then went to Perry, then back to Cain and then to Gingrich. I've gone back and forth so many times, she said.
The Register poll said 41 percent of Iowa Republicans were still capable of changing their minds by Tuesday when they kick off the 2012 presidential election cycle heading to the November 6 election. Republican voters will attend caucuses, where they will gather with neighbors and listen to speeches for the candidates before casting ballots.
The newspaper poll, conducted Tuesday through Friday, showed Romney with 24 percent support and Paul with 22 percent, within the margin of error of 4 percentage points and similar to other polls showing the two battling for the top spot in Iowa.
Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, had 15 percent support and former U.S. House Speaker Gingrich 12 percent. In fifth place was Perry with 11 percent, and U.S. Representative Bachmann was sixth with 7 percent.
Paul, a libertarian, shrugged off charges he could not beat Obama and that his non-interventionist views on foreign policy and newsletters published under his name in the 1990s that featured racial remarks put him out of the mainstream.
I would say that I'm pretty mainstream. I think that people who are attacking me now are the ones who can't defend their records, and they've been all over the place, Paul, a longtime U.S. Representative from Texas, said on CNN's State of the Union.
They're having a little trouble finding any flip-flops on me, so they have to go and dig up and distort and demagogue issues, he said.
Paul has not ruled out a third-party run for the White House if he loses the nomination, but said he is not thinking about it now.
I'm essentially tied for first place. Why would I even consider doing anything like that? he said.
(Additional reporting by Bill Trott, Eric Johnson in Iowa; Editing by Alistair Bell and Jackie Frank)