At the "invisible primary" in rural Iowa, candidates for the Republican Party's presidential nomination battle to get the most out of this conservative state, writes US journalist Tawanda Kanhema.

Branding himself as

The war in Afghanistan, jobs and the state of the economy dominate the discourse, and the candidates' handling of these issues during the campaign has had a clear impact on voter preferences.

Jobs and the economy

Gaylon Swehla, 62, lost his job at Sealed Air Corp., an Iowa-based frozen meat packaging manufacturer, along with 257 other Americans in 2009, after the company relocated its operations to Mexico.

Swehla is one of the Iowans who braved the cold on Monday morning to listen to a last minute campaign message from former house speaker Newt Gingrich, who addressed a little less than a hundred voters at an industrial complex in Walford, a small farming town in eastern Iowa.

A diehard conservative and regular caucus-goer, Swehla fits the profile of voters American political scientists and pundits often obsess over, the "undecided", those who will definitely vote, but have to be convinced to support a specific candidate.

"I thought about (Texas governor) Rick Perry for a while, he seemed gung-ho at the beginning, but Newt seems to be on a more even keel and if he gets in, I will vote for him," Swehla said, while clutching a bunch of "Newt Gingrich 2012" campaign yard signs. He changed his mind after Perry called social security a "ponzi scheme".

Perry's comments came as Swehla was waiting for his social security benefits to kick in this February.

Newt Gingrich speaks to supporters in Walford, Iowa. (Photo: Tawanda Kanhema)

Although he has been trailing former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the polls, Gingrich was on message for voters like Swehla, who are dissatisfied with the state of the economy and are looking for an experienced politician who knows the ins and outs of the Washington political machinery.

Gingrich played up his role as speaker of the house, during which he says the US economy enjoyed a surplus, and contrasted that to the high debt and job losses across the nation that were triggered by the financial crisis that began on the eve of the Obama presidency. Although he is a historian, Gingrich paid little attention to the actual timing of the financial crisis, blaming Obama entirely for the state of the economy.

The other Republican candidates seem to be 'warmongers liberal with the blood of American servicemen'. Andrew Strauss, former US Air Force officer

Before the mostly undecided voters attending Gingrich's event had asked any questions, the former speaker started marketing his new book, A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters and a children's book by his wife, Callista Gingrich, Sweet Land of Liberty, which was introduced to the voters by an elephant mascot. Where his opponents displayed buttons and banners, Gingrich displayed books for sale.

"Gingrich doesn't seem to be serious about campaigning," Political rhetoric expert and Truman State University Professor Dr. Jay Self said. "All reports suggest he doesn't have a serious ground game and he seems to be more concerned about selling books than running for the presidential nomination."

Lost cousins and the war

Libertarian candidate Ron Paul had a much higher turnout of strong supporters in Cedar Rapids, where he addressed a capacity crowd of about 200 supporters. Paul's isolationist stance in foreign policy resonates with young Americans opposed to US involvement in conflicts outside its borders.

Among them was a former US Air Force officer who served in Afghanistan, Andrew Strauss, 29, who is now studying engineering at the University of South Dakota.

"Being a former service member and having been shot at in Afghanistan, I realised that most of our foreign actions cause a blowback," Strauss said. Two of his cousins were killed in action in Afghanistan, and he says besides Ron Paul, other Republican candidates seemed to be "warmongers liberal with the blood of American servicemen."

Mitt Romney, who seemed to have the most solid local campaign strategy as the campaign neared its end, addressed voters in Marion, Iowa, and made a last bid for voters to support him in the Tuesday caucus, which remains fairly unpredictable.

The outcome of the caucus, the first major event in the 2012 general election calendar, will provide a rough guide for Republican voter preferences in caucuses across the nation.

Tawanda Kanhema is an investigative journalist and photographer currently based in the US.