He visited more often and outspent his rivals, and, by October, the investment seemed to have paid off: The former Massachusetts governor had run up a 23-point lead over his nearest opponent in the polls and looked all but unbeatable.
Then the ground gave way. With Mike Huckabee pulling even in the latest polls here and Sen. John McCain narrowing a once-commanding lead in New Hampshire, Mr. Romney now finds himself in a harrowing two-front war for survival.
Independent polls released Sunday show Romney in a statistical deadlock with Mr. Huckabee in Iowa and in a tie with Senator McCain in New Hampshire. A month ago, Romney was leading McCain in New Hampshire by 19 points.
Romney has responded with a good cop, bad cop strategy, speaking in sunny terms about America's future during a bus tour across Iowa this past week while simultaneously launching a blitz of attack ads against Huckabee and McCain.
The onslaught of ads and campaign statements target not just his rivals, but even one of the two New Hampshire newspapers that published an "anti-endorsement" of him earlier this month. He branded the Concord Monitor, the main paper in New Hampshire's capital, the "liberal press."
Huckabee and McCain have called the attacks "desperate," and Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post media critic, wrote that the latest ads make Romney's campaign "the most negative … of any presidential candidate in either party." But Romney spokesman Kevin Madden says the spots are a legitimate way to highlight policy differences among candidates. "Voters want that type of information about candidates before choosing who they will support," he wrote in an e-mail.
Victories in Iowa and New Hampshire are crucial for Romney, who is banking on a so-called "kindling strategy" of wins in the early contests to boost him out of third or fourth place in the national polls.
The ads risk alienating some voters, but analysts say they are a reasonable step given Romney's slide ahead of the first-in-the-nation caucuses Thursday.
Still, the short break between the Iowa and New Hampshire contests – just five days – puts Romney in the awkward position of speaking in almost the same breath to two very different electorates: the socially conservative evangelical Christians who make up some 40 percent of Iowa caucusgoers, and the independent-minded New Hampshire voters who knew – and liked – him as the socially moderate governor from a neighboring state.
"The problem for Romney is that the kind of contrast he needs to draw with Huckabee is different from the kind of contrast he needs to draw with McCain," says Linda Fowler, a professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. "If he tries to do both, then he just plays into the problem of authenticity people have with him."
His new ads go after McCain's record on illegal immigration and taxes, and accuse Huckabee of being "soft on government spending" and easy on crime as Arkansas governor. But they avoid social issues such as abortion on which Romney has shifted positions over the years.
Analysts and local GOP officials in Iowa say Romney's runaway lead here as late as the fall was a product of his deep and early investments of time and money. He was the first major presidential candidate of either party to air ads in Iowa, back in February, and Huckabee said recently that Romney has outspent him here by a ratio of 20 to 1. But many evangelical Christians had reservations both about Romney's Mormon faith and his newly adopted positions on social issues. After former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson failed to catch fire, the activists say, Republicans moved toward Huckabee, who showed with his second-place finish in the Ames straw poll in August and his rising poll numbers that he had momentum.
Despite Huckabee's natural appeal as a minister, not all evangelical Iowans interviewed last week could be counted in his camp. Joel Dunlap of Ankeny, Iowa, a ministry student at a local Christian college, says he soured on Huckabee after the former Arkansas governor flubbed answers on foreign policy. Mr. Dunlap singled out Huckabee's remark, after the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, about martial law "continuing." In fact, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had lifted martial law two weeks earlier.
"I agree with my evangelical friends on social issues," Dunlap says, "but Huckabee's lack of knowledge on foreign policy kind of scares me."
Republican activists have mixed feelings about the new ads. "I know [the campaign] is calling his ads 'contrast' or 'comparison' ads, but a lot of people see them as attack ads, and I don't think that's going over very well," says Robin Malmberg, chairwoman of the Henry County Republican Party, in southeast Iowa. "Republicans don't need to be attacking Republicans."
But it is too late for that. McCain struck back with a commercial in New Hampshire accusing Romney of lacking "conviction" and quoting a local newspaper editorial calling him a "phony." Huckabee, in a new spot that is essentially an attack on attack ads, tells Iowa voters "Enough is enough." Huckabee had planned to release a new ad Monday attacking Romney by name.
But at a bizarre noontime news conference in Des Moines in which he had planned to unveil the spot, Huckabee said he'd decided at the very last-minute to keep the high ground and not run it.
Then, in front of more than 100 reporters and news cameras, he projected the ad onto a large screen anyway, in order, he said, to prove to the media that he had actually produced it.
"I know there's going to be cynicism," he said. There was. Reporters immediately questioned whether the move was a stunt to attack Romney while seeming not to.
"It's never too late to do the right thing," Huckabee insisted.
The visceral war of words on the airwaves stands in contrast to the Reaganesque rhetoric Romney has been using on a four-day, 23-stop bus tour across Iowa. "I don't think anybody votes for yesterday," Romney, in khakis and shirtsleeves, said in an upbeat campaign stop in Newton, Iowa, Saturday. "I think we vote for tomorrow."
Despite his dip in the polls, few people here are writing Romney off. Party activists say the very factors responsible for his head start in Iowa – a large, disciplined and well-financed campaign organization – could yield the high turnout of which caucus victories are made.