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This is an unusual campaign season. Up till now, it's been volatile with one front-runner after another. And the campaign in Iowa looks and feels different than previous years. The state prides itself on providing a forum for on the ground campaigning. Voters expect to meet the candidates, sometimes several times. This time though, the candidates have spent less time in the state. They've relied more on social media and their supporters have spent a lot of money in the state.

NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea has more.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Iowa's Republican Governor, Terry Branstad, is a fierce advocate for the Iowa caucuses. At times over the past four months, he's seemed frustrated that candidates were not in the state as much as in past years. His message, over and over, was this.

GOVERNOR TERRY BRANSTAD: Don't ignore the voters of Iowa, because they take it personally. They want to see the candidates and they take their responsibility very seriously.

GONYEA: And while Rick Santorum has spent a great deal of time in the state, bragging that he'd visited all 99 counties months ago, candidates like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul were pretty hard to find here state until recent weeks. Still, the GOP field hardly ignored the state in other ways.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Who has the best chance to beat Obama? Rick Santorum...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Ron Paul has been so consistent from the very beginning...

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Hi, I'm Rick Perry...

MITT ROMNEY: I'm Mitt Romney.

GONYEA: And there's been something new to the advertising mix this year. Here's Iowa Republican strategist John Stineman.

JOHN STINEMAN: The first that I'd have to say is the advent of the SuperPAC, where you have an outside entity that's independent of a campaign that can pour huge amounts of dollars into television ads, radio ads, and mail.

GONYEA: Like this ad that popped up on TV's in Iowa households shortly after Newt Gingrich rose to the top of the polls.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Newt Gingrich's Baggage. Newt has more baggage than the airlines. Freddie Mac helped cause the economic collapse but Gingrich cashed in. Freddie Mac paid Newt $30,000 an hour.

GONYEA: That ad was part of a barrage that helped drive Gingrich's poll numbers down as fast as they'd risen. It was paid for by a group called Restore Our Future which is supportive of, but legally and officially not affiliated with, Mitt Romney. Again, Jon Stineman.

STINEMAN: Attack ads are not new. Negative mail is not new. But having them done by a third party and at the volume that they're being done is a new concept for the caucuses.

GONYEA: Add in social media campaigns and the time candidates spent prepping for and appearing in a lengthy series of debates, and it felt a lot less like traditional Iowa retail campaigning. Though as caucus day drew nearer, the in person appearances by candidates did increase to the point that it did start to feel more like caucus campaigns of years past.

ROMNEY: We should've rented a bigger room. My goodness.

RICK SANTORUM: It's good to be in Polk City, thank you so much.

REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL: This is almost like a real rally! This is great, wonderful.

GONYEA: Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford says Iowa's place as the first official contest of the nominating season has always been about candidates spending time in a small state, making their pitch up close and in person.

DENNIS GOLDFORD: We always, in our nomination system, have to have some state start first but Iowa's role that it's taken on to justify its starting position has been to say that Iowa allows candidates and forces candidates to meet individuals on a one to one and small group basis, rather than treating them simply as a mass of campaign props.

GONYEA: But Goldford adds....

GOLDFORD: If we have this overlay of social media and more on air debates, nationally televised or otherwise, yeah, that distinctive element of Iowa does tend to diminish.

GONYEA: But also remember that Rick Santorum has put in more time here than anyone else this cycle, and he suddenly is in the top tier of candidates. If he finishes well today, then Goldford says, it would a victory for an old-style Iowa campaign.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines.

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