Mitt Romney, left, talks with former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray as he leaves after… (Charlie Neibergall, Associated…)
Reporting from Fairfax, Iowa — Mitt Romney made a belated 2012 campaign debut in Iowa on Friday, dipping a brown-loafered toe into the state that casts the first votes in the presidential contest.
Romney, who will formally enter the Republican race next week, has largely shunned Iowa since falling short here in the 2008 caucuses. He spent much of the day bobbing and weaving around questions about his commitment to Iowa.
"My guess is you'll have plenty of opportunity to see me. I care about Iowa," he told a midday audience in Des Moines, after refusing to say whether he'd compete in a nonbinding straw vote this summer or go all-out in the caucuses next winter.
But if there was any doubt about whether he'd abandon Iowa altogether, as some have speculated, Romney may have put it to rest when he answered affirmatively a quintessential Iowa caucus question: about government subsidies for ethanol, the fuel produced from corn and other farm products.
"I support the subsidy of ethanol. I believe ethanol's an important part of our energy solution in this country," he told a supporter from West Des Moines.
The former Massachusetts governor has been described as unusually weak for a candidate many see as the Republican front-runner. And his somewhat diffident approach to Iowa — and to campaigning in general — is part of an attempt to lower expectations in his second White House try.
Romney told Iowans that his candidacy was tailored to these tough times.
"I'm not going to be flying all over the country and making a big folderol," Romney said. "I know that keeping a lean campaign is part of winning in the final analysis."
Four years ago, he invested heavily in Iowa organization and advertising, and his distant second-place finish was regarded as a setback. Though he is being cagier this time, his reluctance to compete fully is seen by Iowans as a potential threat to their state's status in the nomination process, a matter of considerable civic pride and local economic influence.
Romney did predict he'd win the state, without specifying whether he meant the caucuses or the general election.
"What you can know is, I'll be here debating, I'll be here being interviewed, and I'll be here speaking, and you'll get to know me even better than you did last time," he said to tepid applause from an audience that included some 2008 supporters.
His remarks, at a presidential candidate series forum sponsored by the Greater Des Moines Partnership, were sharply critical of President Obama's economic leadership. Romney described Obama's election as a failed experiment in choosing a president without experience in private business.
"They say that officially the recession is over, but the jobs haven't come back and the foreclosures are continuing," Romney said. "His agenda failed."
Romney says he's positioned to do better in 2012 because voter concerns about jobs and economic growth are "right in my wheelhouse." He is selling his background as a businessman and venture capitalist, contending that creating jobs and making America more competitive in the world is "the sort of stuff I do and I know."
GOP veterans say the contest is as wide-open in Iowa as elsewhere.
"Any one of the top five or six candidates, with the right kind of organization, could surface and surprise everyone," said Marlys Popma, former executive director of the Iowa Republican Party and a leading evangelical Christian activist. She is neutral this year.
There may be good reasons for Romney to give Iowa short shrift. The religious and social conservatives who dominate the state's Republican caucuses are considered less friendly to his establishment brand. And his early-state strategy centers on the leadoff primary in New Hampshire, where he has a vacation home and will declare himself a candidate on Thursday.
But a decision to essentially skip Iowa would run the risk of reinforcing perceptions that he is less than a dominant contender for the nomination. And with his fundraising advantage — and the absence of 2008 caucus winner Mike Huckabee — Romney may be tempted.
For the Republican candidates, the first test of Iowa strength will be the nonbinding straw vote in August. Romney spent lavishly on the event last time — winning it can cost in excess of $1 million — and managed to win. Though he dodged the issue Friday, he is not expected to compete.
Some of his supporters from last time worry that a decision to bypass Iowa would hurt him down the road.
"A fifth- or sixth-place finish in Iowa would be devastating," said Kim Schmett, 58, an attorney from Clive who said he might not back Romney again if he didn't compete here. "That's my concern with Romney. There are a lot of people who like him. But if they don't see him, it's hard to keep the support."