Mitt Romney's secret weapon: Iowa caucuses could go his way

Mitt Romney was not expected to do well in the Iowa caucuses and has put little effort into winning Jan. 3. But polls suggest that he might be well positioned for a victory.

Elaine Thompson/AP
Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks Thursday at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash.

Mitt Romney in Iowa? The former Massachusetts governor has spent hardly any time there since the start of the campaign, and did not spend time or money competing in the Iowa straw poll in August. Now, his campaign announced Tuesday, Mr. Romney will make three appearances Thursday in conservative northwest Iowa – Sioux City, Treynor, and Council Bluffs.

The Hawkeye State was always going to be an important first test for the GOP candidates, with its first-in-the-nation caucuses on Jan. 3. But it was never clear how much of an effort Romney would make there. Perhaps, analysts suggested, the more-conservative candidates would duke it out in Iowa, then the top finisher or finishers would face off against Romney, who is expected to win the New Hampshire primary.

Now, it appears, Romney could actually do well in Iowa. In the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls of Iowa Republicans, Romney is second only to businessman Herman Cain, and not by much. Mr. Cain is at 25 percent and Romney is at 22, followed by Texas Rep. Ron Paul (11), Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (10), Texas Gov. Rick Perry (9), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (8), former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (4), and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (1).

“I think Romney has a good chance at winning the Iowa caucuses,” says Dianne Bystrom, a political scientist at Iowa State University.

Romney has approached Iowa differently than in 2008. Four years ago, he spent about $10 million making an all-out effort to win the state. He won the straw poll, but came in second in the caucuses. When he also came in second in New Hampshire, he never recovered.

Now, Romney has kept expectations for Iowa low. He can maintain a less-than-full-on effort in Iowa and not face headlines that he’s “giving up.” And if he sees an opening to do well, he can swoop in and activate his supporters, who are waiting for the call.

“Last time it was a huge organization in Iowa,” says Connie Schmett, a Republican activist in suburban Des Moines who organized for Romney last time. “He doesn’t have that this time. But I would say none of his supporters have left him.”

David Kochel, a top adviser to Romney in Iowa, says there was never a plan to skip Iowa altogether and that the strategy hasn’t changed. “We’ve done several events here; we’ll do several more,” Mr. Kochel says. “We need to do well here, and I think we will.”

If conservative voters in Iowa don’t coalesce around a particular candidate, that could create a big opening for Romney to divide and conquer. But with 2-1/2 months to go, it’s way too soon to predict how the field will shake out.

Cain is doing well in Iowa, as he is nationally, but it’s not clear if he has staying power. In Iowa, he is not well-organized – and organization is key for caucuses, which require getting people to go out on a cold January evening and spend a couple of hours or more on politics.

Congresswoman Bachmann won the straw poll, and she remains well-organized in Iowa, but she was eclipsed by Governor Perry’s entry into the race and hasn’t had a compelling second act.

Perry’s debate stumbles have affected his standing in Iowa, where he too has faded.

Congressman Paul, who almost won the straw poll, is well-organized and could do well in January – but in a head-to-head match against Romney, he would be a serious underdog.

In Iowa, the Republican Party is dominated by evangelical Christian conservatives, and Romney’s more moderate posture and Mormon faith have been impediments for him in the past. But Republicans are eager to defeat President Obama, and in Iowa, some conservatives may be willing to put aside their differences with Romney if they conclude he has the best shot against the president.

“As the campaign wears on, Iowa voters will start moving toward making their final decision,” says Ms. Bystrom. “They’ll also think about who they like the best, and who’s most electable and presidential.”

Another event to watch is the Thanksgiving Family Forum, organized by the social-conservative group the Family Leader, on Nov. 19 in Des Moines. So far, Cain, Paul, Santorum, Bachmann, Gingrich, and Perry are all participating. Julie Summa, director of marketing and public outreach, says the group recently reinvited Romney, and was told he is still considering taking part.

If Romney says yes, that will be another sign he’s making a serious play for Iowa.

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