Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney hadn’t set foot in Iowa, host of the campaign’s first nominating contest, in more than two months. That doesn’t mean he isn’t competing in the state.
“I will be here again and again campaigning,” he told an audience in Sioux City yesterday. “I’d love to win in Iowa.”
Romney’s comments offer a clear signal that he’s running hard -- albeit under the radar -- in the state.
His campaign is considering whether to ratchet up its presence in Iowa, the state that marked the beginning of the end of Romney’s presidential aspirations during his 2008 run.
While trying to keep expectations low, campaign aides say an intense focus on the economy could offer Romney opportunities to make a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses.
“Clearly he is in the game,” said David Oman, a former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party who is supporting Romney after backing former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in 2008. “The times sometimes suggest what you need in a president.”
Romney lost the state’s Republicans in 2008 after the socially conservative voters who dominate the party’s caucuses took issue with his past support for abortion rights and Massachusetts health-care law when he was governor.
This year, social conservatives have yet to rally around one candidate, leaving the possibility that they could divide their support, creating an opening for Romney to make a strong showing in the Jan. 3 caucuses.
No Ethanol Subsidies
During his visit yesterday to Western Iowa, the most socially conservative part of the state, Romney largely stayed focused on economic issues, particularly those of importance to the corn-fueled Iowa economy.
“I’m a friend of ethanol,” he said, expressing support for the fuel even while saying he wouldn’t continue federal subsidies for the industry. “We should recognize the importance of ethanol as a domestic fuel and as an alternative to buying energy from other nations.”
Romney traveled in friendly terrain, addressing small- business owners and heads of industry associations from areas he largely won during his last run. In appearances before business leaders, he touted his background in private industry and joked about his lack of experience in rural issues.
“Having spent 25 years in business I understand business,” he told a rancher in Treynor. “I only spent one summer on a ranch.”
Though he’s visited the state infrequently this year, Romney has kept in touch with the business community. He’s held two conference calls with party activists in Iowa and plans more in the future.
Still, with just four campaign aides in Iowa, his presence is a shadow of what it was during the last campaign, when he poured in $10 million and employed dozens in the state.
Instead, he has focused his efforts largely on New Hampshire, where he owns a vacation home, while keeping efforts in Iowa alive mainly through a network of volunteers.
So far, that’s been enough to keep Romney on top in the polls. A survey conducted by NBC News/Marist earlier this month showed Romney holding a slight advantage among likely Republican caucus-goers, leading former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive Herman Cain by 23 percent to 20 percent.
Romney’s limited presence, however, may not be enough to make a strong showing in the caucuses, said Doug Gross, the candidate’s 2008 campaign chairman in Iowa who has remained neutral this year.
“They’re starting to organize more aggressively,” said Gross. “But a physical candidate presence will be required.”
Other candidates also are working to expand their organizations in the state.
Cain said yesterday he had won the backing of Steve Grubbs, a former state party chairman in Iowa, as his chairman there. In the past, Grubbs has worked for presidential candidates including Bob Dole, Steve Forbes and Tommy Thompson.
“We know that we will need a strong, ground-based organization to do well in Iowa,” Mark Block, Cain’s campaign chief of staff, said in a statement.
Tony Beck, owner of several pizza restaurants across the state, said that while he found Cain’s outspoken positions interesting, he thought Romney’s private business experience has improved his chances in the state since the last campaign.
“Frankly, the last time it was that religious thing that hurt him,” he said of Romney’s Mormon faith, after hearing Romney speak in Council Bluffs. “The biggest thing everyone should be focusing on now is the economy.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Lerer in Council Bluffs, Iowa at email@example.com