Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney poses with Sari Farquhar… (Mark Kegans, Getty Images )
Reporting from Des Moines — Speaking to thousands of Iowans in a telephone town hall, Mitt Romney pledged Wednesday to be a visible presence in the state in the weeks leading up to its first-in-the-nation presidential voting contest.
"You'll be seeing more and more of me as we get closer to the caucuses," he said. "Hopefully I'll be able to convince almost all of you to go to caucus. I really do want your support."
The former Massachusetts governor, who had irked some Iowans by paying little attention to the state for much of the year, is clearly stepping up his efforts here. Romney just opened a campaign headquarters in Des Moines and is visiting the state more frequently. He is expected to begin airing commercials soon, having recently videotaped one here.
Until recently, the candidate was ostensibly ignoring the state, though he had a small number of paid staffers quietly reaching out to his 2008 supporters. His staff was wary of repeating his approach four years ago, when Romney spent millions of dollars on a flashy campaign and banked so much on an Iowa victory that his second-place finish was a devastating blow to his presidential aspirations.
Though his campaign has kept expectations low this time around, much has gone Romney's way — the contest is more wide open at this point than in any Iowa nominating contest in memory, and the socially conservative and evangelical voters who thwarted him in 2008 have failed to coalesce behind a candidate.
If he can persuade his 2008 supporters to turn out for him again and the social conservative and evangelical voters who dominate the caucuses remain splintered, Romney could win on Jan. 3 despite spending a fraction of the money and time he spent here four years ago. That, coupled with an expected victory in the New Hampshire primary a week later, could seal the GOP race.
"A victory in Iowa and New Hampshire would likely decide the nomination," said Tim Albrecht, a GOP operative who worked for Romney in 2008 but is unaligned this year, and who serves as spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad. "It's hard to see a credible, competitive candidate emerging if Mitt Romney wins Iowa and New Hampshire."
The campaign says the effort is rolling out as planned, and that Romney didn't need to spend as much time or money here because he has name recognition that he lacked four years ago.
"We haven't changed what we've been doing," said David Kochel, Romney's Iowa director. "We've been here several times, we'll be back several times, and we've had small staff here, but they've worked hard and we respect the process and hope to do well here."
The slimmed-down effort has kept expectations relatively low while employing a surgical strategy. Since losing in 2008, Romney has visited voters in seven counties who turned out in high numbers for him that year.
These areas are urban — home to establishment, economic-minded Republicans who are a natural fit for Romney, as well as Catholics who don't have the qualms about Romney's Mormon faith that some evangelical voters here do, said Craig Robinson, founder of the Iowa Republican website.
Romney pulled more than 13,000 votes in these seven counties, which alone would have been enough for a fourth-place finish in 2008, Robinson said. And as the national front-runner, he will pick up votes elsewhere.
"I actually think it's brilliant, especially if it works," he said. "He's limited expectations while he has played in areas that are his strengths."
Romney has skipped many of the candidate gatherings and forums that dot the campaign schedule. His absence has drawn the ire of Branstad, who is uncommitted in the race and said last week that Romney was making a "big mistake."
"I know Romney is putting his focus in New Hampshire, but if he gets clobbered here — if he comes in not in the top three, but say fourth or fifth — I think that really damages his campaign," Branstad said.
Many of his 2008 supporters, such as Eleanor Myers, 85, and Vera Reves, 81, of Adel, say they wish he would spend more time here.
"I voted for him last time. I just like what he says and what he represents, a family man," Myers said. "I think he needs to be here."
Romney is stepping up his schedule in the state. Wednesday marked his fifth trip here this year, but his second this month. During a morning town hall at a Nationwide Insurance office in Des Moines, he argued that President Obama had failed to right the nation's economy.
Romney was endorsed at the event by Republican Sen. John Thune, who is from neighboring South Dakota and is popular here. Afterward, while speaking with reporters, Romney continued to castigate GOP rival Newt Gingrich's immigration views. During a debate Tuesday, the former House speaker suggested that those in the country illegally should be treated differently depending on how long they have been here and their ties to the community.
"We make a mistake as a Republican Party to try and describe which people who come here illegally should be given amnesty to be able to jump ahead [in] line of the people who have been waiting in line," Romney said.
Gingrich is the latest candidate to challenge Romney for front-runner status. Earlier in the year, Romney used a moderate immigration stance as a cudgel against Rick Perry in Iowa, where illegal immigration remains a major concern among conservative voters.
Later, Romney donated toys to a Salvation Army and held the telephone town hall.
"Obviously, I'm looking for the endorsement from the people of Iowa," Romney said.