GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses a town hall meeting in… (Brian Snyder, Reuters )
Reporting from Des Moines — Four years ago, Mitt Romney was a man on a mission at the Ames Straw Poll, the initial test of a presidential campaign's organizational strength in the state that holds the first voting contest in the nation.
He spent more than $1 million on the August event, hiring a fleet of buses to transport thousands of supporters to the Iowa State University campus, paying their $35 entry fees, sheltering them from triple-digit heat in a cavernous tent complete with flat-screen TVs, and feeding them Hickory Park barbeque, a local favorite.
This time around, as the former Massachusetts governor makes his second presidential bid, he's forgoing any formal pitch at the quadrennial tradition, a circus-like fundraiser for the state GOP.
The contrast indicates how the candidate and his campaign have changed since his unsuccessful bid in 2008. Romney won the straw poll in 2007, but his extravagant effort raised expectations so high that Romney's distant second-place finish at the Iowa caucuses the next winter was a crippling blow to his campaign.
This time, Romney has been so low-key publicly in Iowa that many have suggested he is writing off the state altogether — though his campaign has never gone that far; there are growing signs of an under-the-radar effort to bolster his presence.
"Caucuses are often a matter of expectations — if you put in a lot of effort, you better win. That was the problem Romney had last time — he put in the effort and didn't win," said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. This time around, "if he gets second or third while not putting much effort in, that's a really good selling point."
Hagle said Romney may have an opening in Iowa that he didn't have four years ago, when social conservatives threw their heft behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, pushing him into a surprise first-place finish in the caucuses. Many evangelical voters were skeptical of Romney then, because of his Mormon faith and his past positions on issues such as abortion.
But in 2012, economic issues may trump social issues for many of Iowa's voters, benefitting the former businessman, while other voters may split among candidates with strong social conservative connections, such as Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and potential contender Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, Hagle said.
Romney has visited the state only once this year. But on Tuesday, he held a telephone town hall for Iowa voters that drew nearly 10,000 listeners. And he is taking part in an Iowa debate two days before the Aug. 13 straw poll and is expected to campaign around the state then, visiting the popular state fair among other stops. Being in the spotlight could help him win votes at the straw poll, even if he is not formally taking part.
"He's been paying attention, big time. He's checking in with people and he's getting ready for the caucuses and he'll be here after the straw poll," said Joni Scotter, a veteran Republican activist who supported Romney in 2008 but is undecided this year.
Scotter, whose support is much coveted among the GOP hopefuls, said she met with Romney during a May picnic dinner he hosted in a historic barn in Cedar Rapids after his sole campaign event in Des Moines. Romney used the trip to meet privately with past and, perhaps, future supporters.
"He just came to see all the people that supported him before," she said. "It was great seeing him."
Romney has a minimal team in Iowa — three paid staff members on the ground, and plenty of informal advisors.
"They've got a small field team here calling around to past supporters to see what the slippage has been," said a senior Iowa Republican who is familiar with the campaign but spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not affiliated with it.
But others are stepping into the breach. A group called Iowans for Romney is urging supporters to turn out for the straw poll despite Romney's decision to skip it.
"You can still vote for him at the straw poll!! There will be several organizations sponsoring people who want to attend & vote 4 Mitt. A close 3rd or 2nd place @ the Straw Poll would shock the media!" the group posted on its Facebook page.
Attempts to reach the leaders of the group were unsuccessful.
State political veterans say it is highly unlikely that such groups are not operating at the behest of the campaign. (The campaign says that it is not spending any money to get supporters to the straw poll and that it has called on others not to do so.)
"I'm sure they're directing it," said Doug Gross, who was the chairman of Romney's Iowa campaign in 2008 and is uncommitted this time.
The Des Moines attorney said such efforts are part of a broader strategy, though he questions whether it will be successful.