Why Romney's Iowa robo-calls are targeting Rick Perry, not Herman Cain

Romney campaign robo-calls Thursday featured a critic of Rick Perry's stance on immigration. It was a sign Romney is taking Iowa more seriously, and that he views Perry as his main challenger.

Jason Reed/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at the 'Defending the American Dream Summit' in Washington on Friday. Mr. Romney funded robo-calls Thursday to Iowa voters featuring a critic of Rick Perry's stance on immigration.

Is Mitt Romney ramping up in Iowa in a possible play to win that state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses?

There are growing signs that the former Massachusetts governor – a leading GOP presidential contender – is doing just that.

Mr. Romney funded robo-calls Thursday to Iowa voters featuring an Arizona sheriff accusing Texas Gov. Rick Perry of being “part of the illegal immigration problem,” the Associated Press reported Friday.

In a clarification, a Romney official told Politico that the sheriff, Paul Babeu of southwestern Arizona, held a live conference call with Iowa voters, and that voters who did not pick up the phone received a voicemail.

“A lot of the candidates agree we need a border fence. And almost all of them agree in-state tuition for illegal immigrants is wrong,” Sheriff Babeu reportedly said in the voicemail. “However, Rick Perry disagrees. Rick Perry not only opposes a border fence. But he signed the bill to make Texas the first state in the nation to grant in-state tuition discounts to illegal immigrants.”

Romney has been pounding on Governor Perry for weeks on the immigration issue, one of the biggest policy differences between the two candidates. Romney supports the building of a border fence and opposes granting in-state tuition to college-age illegal immigrants.

Perry’s poll numbers remain mired in single digits, both nationally and in Iowa, while businessman Herman Cain is still tied for first with Romney among GOP voters. But the Romney campaign still views Perry as likely to be Romney’s most serious competitor for the Republican nomination, especially in light of Mr. Cain’s struggles over claims of sexual harassment from when he ran the National Restaurant Association.

Cain remains strong in national polls taken after the harassment story broke last Sunday. No new polls have been taken in Iowa since Sunday, but in the most recent polls, he leads in Iowa with an average of 27 percent of likely caucus-goers, followed by Romney with 22 percent. Perry averages 7 percent.

The Iowa caucuses will be held on Jan. 3, 2012. Romney will make two campaign stops in Iowa on Monday, in Dubuque and Davenport. It will be only his fourth trip to Iowa in this campaign cycle.

If Romney can win the Iowa caucuses, he would become the prohibitive favorite to win the Republican nomination. He is expected to win the next contest, the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10, which is Romney’s home turf. When candidates don’t do well in the early contests, their funding dries up and they have a hard time continuing. Still, Perry has flush campaign coffers, and so he is seen as having the strength to stay in for the long haul, despite his current struggles.

Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, says the Romney robo-calls in Iowa surprised him, given the former governor’s image as Mr. Clean.

“There’s been a general sense that the Republicans need to avoid a circular firing squad,” says Mr. Goldford, especially after the Cain campaign accused the Perry campaign of leaking the harassment story. “Maybe [the Romney campaign] is trying to nip any comeback by Perry in the bud.”

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