Romney Returns to Iowa as He Weighs More Serious Effort to Win Caucuses

As Mitt Romney arrived for a campaign stop yesterday in Dubuque, Iowa, awaiting him was a large sheet of steel cut into the shape of Iowa. At the sheet’s center, workers at the metal fabrication shop had also carved the Republican presidential candidate’s name.

Romney’s own commitment to the state remains a bit less sturdy, even as he shows increasing signs that he intends a more aggressive effort to compete in the Iowa caucuses, the contest that will start the nomination voting on Jan. 3.

His two appearances yesterday, in counties he won in his failed 2008 attempt at the nomination, follow Iowa visits Romney made last month and marked his fourth trip to the state in 2011.

“You guys were helpful to me last time around,” Romney told his audience at the metal shop. “I expect you to be helpful to me this time as well.”

David Yepsen, a former political writer at the Des Moines Register who is now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, said Romney is well-positioned for a strong showing in Iowa.

“Unless the social conservatives rally around a single candidate, Romney is going to do well there,” he said. “He’s managing expectations well.”

Four Years Ago

Social conservatives, who turn out in large numbers in the Republican caucuses, four years ago balked at Romney’s past support of abortion rights and the Massachusetts health-care law he signed. Romney finished second to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in Iowa, a showing that helped derail his bid.

If Romney were to win the 2012 caucuses, followed by a victory in the New Hampshire primary a week later, it would put him in a strong position to win the party’s nomination. Romney, who owns New Hampshire property and is well-known from governing a neighboring state, has led polls in that state all year.

“If he wins, it’s going to be a big deal,” Yepsen said, adding that if he falls short in Iowa he will be able to blame a variety of factors, including less time spent in the state.

Romney, 64, the former Massachusetts governor and business executive, had signaled during most of this year that he wouldn’t make an all-out push to win the caucuses. Changing that strategy could pay big dividends, Yepsen said.

“It’s risky and I can understand why the Romney camp is debating it, but the presidency is won by risk-takers,” he said.

Following Script

Romney, following the script that has marked his current campaign, focused his fire yesterday on President Barack Obama rather than any of his rivals in the Republican race.

During a later stop in Davenport, Iowa, Romney pitched his qualifications for a general election, saying his party needs to nominate someone who will be “able to beat Barack Obama and get America right again.”

In Dubuque, he told listeners that the U.S. economy will remain stagnant should Obama win a second term in 2012.

“This huge overhang of foreclosures will continue and you can expect housing values to stay extraordinarily poor,” he said, wearing jeans and a blue plaid shirt. “If President Obama is re-elected, you can expect more trillion dollar deficits and perhaps a very significant risk that America will face the kind fiscal crisis and calamity that you’ve seen in Europe.”

Phone Calls

While Romney spotlighted Obama in his speech, his campaign in the past week has run automated telephone messages in Iowa that accuse Texas Governor Rick Perry of aiding illegal immigration.

Those messages, along with underscoring Romney’s newfound interest in Iowa, suggest that he views Perry as his biggest challenger there. Romney also dispatched one of his five sons to Iowa to campaign for him in his absence.

Perry, 61, has begun airing television and radio ads in the state, while Romney is conserving his resources.

Perry aides issued a news release yesterday criticizing Romney for skipping a candidate forum in Iowa last week that focused on manufacturing issues.

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,” Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan said in a statement. “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.”

Weighing Support

Jeff Walker, 57, a semi-retired small business owner who lives in Dubuque, said he came to see Romney because he is considering supporting him in the caucuses.

“I’m here out of curiosity,” he said. “I’m more conservative than he is socially.”

With just five paid campaign aides in Iowa, Romney’s presence is a shadow of what it was four years ago, when he poured $10 million into the state and employed dozens.

Still he has kept in touch with Iowa business leaders and joined in periodic conference calls with party activists.

A poll conducted by the Des Moines Register and released Oct. 29 showed Romney and businessman Herman Cain in a statistical tie for first place among likely Republican caucus attendees. Other recent surveys also have shown the two vying for the lead in the state.

The surveys were taken before the reports of the sexual harassment complaints during the late 1990s against Cain, 65, surfaced last week. Another complaint arose yesterday, this one from a woman willing to identify herself publicly.

Job Applicant

Sharon Bialek, speaking at a news conference in New York, said Cain groped her in 1997 after the Washington-based National Restaurant Association had let her go and she was seeking his help in finding a new job.

Cain was the restaurant group’s chief executive officer at the time. His campaign immediately issued a statement calling Bialek’s allegations “false,” and denying “all allegations of harassment” against Cain.

Romney made no mention of the furor surrounding Cain during his Iowa stops. Today, he termed the harassment allegations “particularly disturbing” in an interview with ABC News.

“Any time there is an accuser that comes forward with charges of this nature you recognize this is a very serious matter and it should be taken seriously,” he said. Romney added that “I don’t have any counsel for Herman Cain or for his campaign, they have to take their own counsel on this.”

‘Mitt Is It’

In his speech in Dubuque, Romney said his goal is for television screens across the nation to flash “Mitt is it,” on election night next November.

“I want to go to work to make America once again the most attractive place in the world, the most prosperous place in the world, for middle-income Americans,” he said. “I’ll make sure that America is the most attractive place in the world for entrepreneurs, for investors, for business and for job growth.”

Romney also reprised details of a budget-cutting plan he announced last week, saying he would cut $500 billion in federal spending during a first term in office, including money for Amtrak rail travel and some arts programs.

“My test for the federal government is this: Is this program so critical, so important that it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it,” he said. “We can’t keep buying and spending and passing on debts to our kids, and I’ll stop it by killing programs.”

To contact the reporter on this story: John McCormick in Davenport, Iowa at jmccormick16@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva in Washington at msilva34@bloomberg.net.

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