Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, greet supporters… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)
Reporting from Des Moines — After a campaign effort that has defied convention and angered top Iowa Republicans, Mitt Romney is well-positioned to emerge as a big winner in Tuesday's presidential caucuses.
The tightest GOP caucus contest in decades features Romney, Ron Paul and a fading Newt Gingrich in a virtual tie for the lead, making the final days of politicking unusually consequential. And another candidate, Rick Perry or Rick Santorum, could get hot at the end and knock one of the favorites out of the top three.
But it seems increasingly likely that Romney, condemned only last month by Iowa's Republican governor for ignoring the state, has managed to finesse the tricky voter test that he failed four years ago. He ran second then to upstart Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and ex-evangelical minister, despite investing huge amounts of time and money.
Just before flying to Iowa on Tuesday for a four-day campaign swing, Romney said that expectations were "very different this time." He then tried to lower them, noting that a couple of weeks ago he "was a distant third in Iowa, and you just don't know what's going to happen in this process."
Gingrich, struggling to hold the lead he had gained in the polls, lashed out at his main rivals. In a CNN interview from his tour bus stop in Dubuque, he said he would not vote for Paul if he became the nominee, describing the Texas congressman's views as "totally outside the mainstream of virtually every decent American."
He ridiculed Paul for newsletters sent out under Paul's name in the late 1980s and early 1990s that Gingrich said were "racist, anti-Semitic [and] called for the destruction of Israel." Paul has disavowed the newsletters.
As for Romney, Gingrich said he should be "man enough to own" the anti-Gingrich ads run by a group of Romney's "millionaire friends" for which the former Massachusetts governor raised money. The ads have run nonstop for weeks in Iowa.
Gingrich said that his campaign was "going to stay totally positive," but added that caucusgoers had "a great opportunity" to "send a signal to the country that negative ads written by dishonest consultants on behalf of irresponsible candidates do not deserve getting votes." Romney contends that he can't tell the "super PAC" to stop the ads because federal law prohibits him from coordinating the group's activities with his candidacy.
In a further sign of how different 2012 is turning out to be from 2008, another runner-up finish for Romney in Iowa would be interpreted as a victory this time — assuming that Paul wins. The libertarian lawmaker from Houston, whose fervent base of supporters continues to expand, is considered too extreme to have a realistic chance of becoming the nominee. But his emergence as the early GOP leader should he win in Iowa would severely complicate Perry's or Gingrich's ability to challenge the deep-pocketed Romney in upcoming primaries.
"There are two good scenarios for Romney in Iowa: Romney wins or Paul wins," said Sara Taylor Fagen, a nonaligned Republican strategist.
With six candidates crisscrossing the state in a furious closing rush, and continued mild weather in the forecast, Iowa Republicans predict a heavier turnout than last time. That could favor Romney over Paul, who is thought to have the most dedicated supporters and therefore would be expected to benefit if turnout was low.
In 2008, Romney based his Iowa campaign on a 20-year-old plan developed for Bob Dole in 1988. This time, Romney, who says he is "driven by data," has pioneered a new path. It relies heavily on technology and far less on in-person campaigning, which is inefficient and, in Romney's case, exposes one of his greatest weaknesses: his difficulty connecting on a personal level with ordinary voters.
"We've run a much different campaign than we ran four years ago — obviously and not so obviously," said David Kochel, a Des Moines direct-mail specialist who has worked for Romney since 2002 and is managing the 2012 statewide effort.
The most obvious difference: Romney has made himself scarce. Though he insisted from the start that he would compete in Iowa, his relatively infrequent visits — the latest is only his eighth — raised questions about how hard he would fight to win. Iowa's GOP caucuses have been dominated by evangelical Christians, many of whom mistrust Romney's Mormon faith and whether he is a true conservative. He skipped the August straw vote that he won in 2008, saving more than $1 million and avoiding a potential embarrassment if he failed to repeat.
By holding Iowa at arm's length, the ex-governor managed to keep his options open and expectations in check. But he also provoked Gov. Terry Branstad, who grew increasingly fretful that his state's status in the presidential game would suffer permanent harm if another GOP front-runner essentially skipped the caucuses, as John McCain did in 2008.