To illustrate Mitt Romney’s Iowa strategy, some numbers are helpful: Counting today’s visit, he has made four visits to Iowa all year. That’s two fewer than Sarah Palin, who’s not running for the GOP presidential nomination.
During those trips, Romney has made 15 stops, 51 fewer than Herman Cain, 63 fewer than Newt Gingrich and 183 fewer than Rick Santorum. He made one trip to Iowa prior to the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames, and he skipped that vote. He has appeared at zero candidate forums in the Hawkeye State.
But the most important number: He’s tied for No. 1 among all candidates in Iowa in the most recent Des Moines Register Iowa Poll.
Romney’s strategy clearly has been to downplay the importance of Iowa, at least publicly. Rather than meeting voters from around the state, he’s relying on a campaign infrastructure left over from 2007 and automated telephone calls bashing Rick Perry on immigration.
By publicly downplaying Iowa, Romney will find it hard to lose the Jan. 3 caucuses. If he wins, he wins. If finishes second or even third, he wins by saying he wasn’t even playing.
“The danger for him would be that if he seriously contested Iowa and didn’t do well, that seriously weakens him going into New Hampshire, which is supposed to be his stronghold,” says Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University in Des Moines. “He’s following a strategy with very little risk. He was burned badly here four years ago, and he’s doing what he can not to let that happen again.”
Second place in Iowa has often been strong enough to propel a candidate to the party’s nomination, starting back in 1972, when George McGovern engineered the state’s January voting slot and — although finishing second to Edmund Muskie — went on to win the Democratic nomination.
But second place isn’t good enough when all outward appearances are that a candidate is going all out for first. Four years ago, sensing that John McCain was being perceived in Iowa as the establishment candidate, Romney ran to his right in search of the evangelical vote. He never found it. Mike Huckabee rode the wings of evangelicals to first place, Romney finished second and his campaign never recovered.
“He’s getting here just enough to show the flag so that people know he’s alive, and people can’t say that he’s totally ignored the state,” said Goldford.
Romney’s campaign, of course, would never admit to downplaying expectations in Iowa. In fact, a Romney spokesman, Ryan Williams, answered about every question asked of him recently by Patch in the same way: Romney is running a 50-state campaign and plans to be back in the state a lot.
“Our campaign laid out a plan to be competitive around the country,” he told Patch last week. “We’re continuing with that same plan.”
But that's not selling with other candidates. In an email, Rick Perry's campaign today took a shot at Romney for ducking Iowa voters. "Mitt Romney regulated Massachusetts electric supplies by capping carbon emissions, and now he's trying to regulate his political risk in Iowa by capping his exposure to tough questions," said Perry campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan.
"Given that Romney has visited the state just four times in 2011, he should take this rare opportunity to finally give Iowans clear, honest answers about his support for job-killing carbon caps and his ever-changing views on climate change," said Sullivan. Which isn’t to say that Romney isn’t trying behind the scenes to win.
Romney still has a working campaign apparatus in place from the last election, and he has raised more money in Iowa than any other Republican candidate except Ron Paul. Romney has raised more than twice as much as his closest financial rival, Michele Bachmann.
“He has a lot of residual support and strengths from four years ago,” says Dave McCormack, a professor and chairman of the political science department at Iowa State University in Ames. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he wins these caucuses outright. And, remember, finishing just respectable is a win anyway."
That’s largely because the only Not-Mitt candidate to gain — and maintain — any strength in Iowa has been Herman Cain. He and Romney were statistically tied for the top in the Register’s most recent poll (conducted Oct. 23-26), and the third-place poller, Ron Paul, was far behind.
“There’s just not been the anti-Romney person Republicans have been comfortable with,” says McCormack. “I don’t have a good feel for the intensity of Romney’s support, but I do know that he has maintained his strength.”
Romney, in fact, polled about 22 percent in October, about the same as he polled in June. Since then, while Romney’s support has remained steady, those polled have flitted from Bachmann to Perry and now to Cain.
Iowa caucus-goers are notorious for kicking candidates’ tires, and deciding at the last minute who to throw their support behind. The Register poll showed that 74 percent of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers “currently have no first choice or could be persuaded to switch their first choice.”
And Iowans do not take kindly to candidates who barricade themselves.
While the other major Republican candidates have offices with everything but jugglers used to entice volunteers inside, a look at Romney’s Iowa “campaign headquarters” illustrates how cut off he has been from voters here.
The building, on a commercial strip in Des Moines, looks suspiciously like a park outhouse. It is a brick, one-story squarish structure with clumps of dead leaves swirling around it and knee-high weeds swaying in the wind.
No “Romney for President” banners are anywhere to be seen, no balloons. The sign on the front of the building, in fact, is written not to encourage visitors but to send them away: “No solicitations.”
A sole worker is visible through the glass door, and she doesn’t work for Romney. Blinds cover every window. The front door is locked.
The building is owned by Redwave Communications, Romney’s consultants in Iowa.
Says his spokesman, Williams, “We’re running a 50-state campaign. ...”