Romney in striking distance of Iowa winBy MAGGIE HABERMAN, JONATHAN MARTIN and ALEXANDER BURNS
December 28. 2011 7:55PM
Don't look now, but Mitt Romney suddenly seems like the Iowa front-runner.
The former Massachusetts governor has carefully tempered expectations in Iowa all year, visiting only a handful of times and saving the bulk of his television spending for the final weeks of the race. But as a crowd of conservative opponents keep the anti-Romney vote divided, his odds of a victory in the state that humbled him four years ago have never been better.
Even as he tried to keep talk about his prospects in check Tuesday, a slew of public and private polling and anecdotal evidence on the ground suggests that Romney is within striking distance of a first-place finish in Iowa - especially as Ron Paul's momentum spurt appears to have run into the reality of front-runners' scrutiny.
Romney's team is moving to make the most of it. The candidate launched a bus tour Tuesday and suggested on a conference call with Iowans this week that he'll be in the state for New Year's Eve. After a solid ad buy in Iowa for a month totaling more than $1.1 million, Romney's camp has upped its spending in the Quad Cities market, sources familiar with the purchase told POLITICO. His team has dropped a collection of mail pieces, both positive about Romney and negative about the perceived closest alternative - Newt Gingrich.
In another clear sign he's playing to win, he has quietly moved a handful of staffers from his headquarters in Boston and in other states earlier this month to give his skeleton Iowa staff a needed boost. And he's cycling in a platoon of high-profile surrogates to rally around him in the state at stump stops and on talk radio, including Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. John Thune, Rep. Aaron Schock and former Sens. Norm Coleman and Jim Talent.
Among Romney's Iowa backers, there was a marked rise in confidence Tuesday.
"I think we're going to do better than most people expect us to do," said state Rep. Renee Schulte, a top Cedar Rapids Romney supporter.
Schulte hesitated about predicting an outright win because of the many variables - Paul's turnout, Rick Santorum's potential, the weather - still hanging over the race. But she noted the difference between this year and the 2008 caucuses.
"The only way we were going to lose was if the right coalesced, and that's exactly what happened [with Mike Huckabee]," said Schulte. "But this time Bachmann, Santorum and Perry are still out campaigning aggressively, so if [conservatives] go three ways, we're going to do better."
Speaking on background, another Romney loyalist with close ties to the candidate dispensed with the expectation-setting.
"That is becoming more likely," said the loyalist when asked if Romney could win the caucuses outright. "We've been lucky and good. The campaign plan was always to adjust activity based on what we were seeing on ground but keep expectations down. But between the positive news for us of late and negatives for our rivals, we're finishing in a good place."
Predicted this source: "If we have a good week, we'll finish strongly. Is it one? Is it two? I'd be surprised now if it's three."
"A caucus win would certainly deliver the one-two knockout punch that they would love to have," said Tim Albrecht, Gov. Terry Branstad's communications director and a Romney adviser in his 2007 race, referring to the prospect of wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. "They are quietly organizing to do well here while publicly downplaying their expectations."
Former Iowa House Speaker Chris Rants, a 2007 Romney backer who recently pledged support to him this time as well, said the role Iowa typically plays is to winnow the field - and that those who will get cut first are likely to be Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich.
"So if Mitt finishes first or second," he added, "does it really matter?"
Yet with great opportunity comes a new degree of peril for the on-and-off Republican front-runner: Romney's all-but-explicit push to win the caucuses, along with his clearer-than-ever status as the national GOP favorite, will make it difficult for his campaign to treat Iowa as sideshow if the vote next week puts him in a distant second place or lower.
That, Iowa politicos say, is as it should be for a candidate who has worked the state intermittently for half a decade and who still has one of the most sophisticated campaign operations in the state - especially as he runs against a "mini-caucus" of Bachmann, Perry, Gingrich and Santorum, while standing alone with Paul in the top tier.
"He ought to finish first or second," said Steve Grubbs, a former Iowa Republican Party chairman. "He has two groups of voters who are coalescing around him right now. One is pro-business voters and the second is the group of voters concerned about electability. From my anecdotal conversations, those are the two groups that seem to be coming together for Mitt Romney, and those are two pretty sizable groups."
"In these last few days, he's putting in more time and has a greater presence, so it's clear to a lot of people he's going for a win that could start wrapping this up for him, much as Kerry did in '04," agreed David Yepsen, a former longtime Des Moines Register columnist.
Mike Murphy, a veteran of many Iowa state and presidential races who advised Romney's 2002 governor's race, exclaimed "Yeah!" when asked if the former Massachusetts governor could win Iowa outright, adding, "Especially with Newt fading and this [Wall Street Journal] story [about him once supporting Romneycare], which means he won't be able to get his message out for another 48 hours."
As for Paul, Murphy said the libertarian's strength was being overestimated.
"If you have enough regular Republican caucus-goers show up, I don't think he wins it," he said. "Either way, if you're Romney, you come out with somebody weak - a crazy-ass Ron Paul or an imploding Newt. He'll be in a commanding position. These are a big couple of days for Mitt [before the caucuses]. He still has to land the 747. But things are lining up for him there."
Santorum sought to boost expectations for Romney to POLITICO after a visit to a Mason City manufacturer, suggesting he ought to meet the national bar he's set for himself.
"I don't think there's any question that he's been the front-runner from Day One," Santorum said, noting that "Iowa is part of the nation. This has been, because of the debates, a national race more than it has been a local race. The idea that Romney hasn't run here …" he said, his voice trailing off as if to dismiss the notion.
Romney backers have long cited a string of reasons why third place or better would be a respectable showing for him - his paid staff is pared down substantially from his 2007 campaign to just a handful this time around; he has done little to court the state's pivotal evangelical voting bloc; and there's a lingering mistrust of him among conservatives who spurned him for Huckabee in his last campaign.
Romney insisted during a New Hampshire swing Tuesday morning that he doesn't have to win and even cited polls showing him languishing in third place.
"A couple of weeks ago, I was a distant third in Iowa, and you just don't know what's going to happen in this process," said Romney.
Top Romney strategist Stuart Stevens told POLITICO there are "a million reasons" why Romney can't win Iowa but declined to name them. As for having to come in first or second, he said, "We just don't have that kind of sling-shot strategy. Some campaigns have to do an X-then-Y thing. That's not our campaign."
Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney adviser, also declined to say how he thinks they'll fare.
"I'm not playing the Iowa expectations game," he said. "Of course, we want to win everywhere Mitt Romney's name is on the ballot, but this election isn't going to be decided next week, or next month and possibly not for several months. That's why we have built an organization that can go the long distance needed to get the 1,143 delegates required for the nomination."
The only other campaign built for distance at the moment is Paul's - but he is, according to rival campaigns, experiencing a slide prompted by sudden scrutiny of his lesser-known stands. They include opposing action to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and racist newsletters that bore his name and earned him money, which he's disavowed and claimed he didn't write - but has yet to explain away with precision, either.
This does not mean, several Iowa politicos said, that Romney has to win. A second-place finish to Ron Paul would still be spinnable for a bounce into New Hampshire, they argued, where he remains heavily favored.
What he can't do, several veterans argued, is finish beneath Gingrich or Perry.
"I think if Romney finishes second and he's separated from" a third-place finisher, he springboards well into New Hampshire, Rep. Steve King said. But, he added, if he is a distant third to Gingrich or someone else, "I think that does damage him going forward."
"I don't know that they have to win the state, but I think he's going to do very well next week," said Dave Roederer, who worked on George W. Bush's and John McCain's Iowa campaigns in 2000 and 2008, respectively.
However, Roederer, like King, cautioned that Gingrich may still have life in his candidacy and warned Romney's "goal is to beat Newt Gingrich in the state."
Grubbs argued the candidates working those voters hardest weren't even Romney's biggest competition in the state.
"I think it's more likely than not that if Romney doesn't finish first, Ron Paul will finish first, just because the conservative vote is so divided," said Grubbs, who headed Herman Cain's Iowa campaign but is now unaligned.
Roederer argued that the social conservatives had dampened their own impact by pronouncing early on that they would coalesce around a candidate, only to remain split a week out from caucus day.
Yepsen, like others, suggested that the fundamentals in Iowa have always been better for Romney than is widely appreciated - and that the sway of the social conservatives has been overstated.
"Look at the math from last time, and I can see where he could finish first just by getting the same votes he had last time," said Yepsen, who now heads the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. "Too much is made of social conservatives. I've seen polls showing only 40 percent this time will be social conservatives. That means 60 percent aren't. Even among social conservatives, the important issues are jobs and the economy."
Rants faulted Romney's cautious Boston central command for being "too slow to pull the trigger on Iowa" earlier this year.
"I understand why they were gun-shy," he added. "But when Perry called Iowans who disagreed with his tuition for illegals 'without a heart,' the Romney folks should have come to Iowa with guns blazing. They should have tried to locked down the state. But their caution created the opening for the rise of Newt. Romney is the only candidate where a movement exists to stop him. Look at Bob Vander Plaats's comments a week ago. The social conservatives want to stop Mitt. Name another candidate who faces that. So if Romney can survive that - 1 or 2 is a win."
Jake Sherman and Reid J. Epstein contributed to this report.
Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns are reporters for POLITICO. The New Hampshire Union Leader and POLITICO are sharing content for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.