Mitt Romney speaks in Des Moines, where he focused on "a financial… (Charlie Neibergall, Associated…)
DES MOINES — Returning to the state that launched Barack Obama to the presidency, Mitt Romney on Tuesday accused his rival of carelessly driving the country into "a financial crisis of both debt and spending that threaten what it means to be an American."
The presumptive GOP nominee's stop in the Hawkeye State, which he largely ignored before its first-in-the-nation caucuses in January, reflected the importance Iowa will play in selecting the next president.
Though there has been little recent public polling in Iowa, both sides clearly see a competitive race here — made clear by the fact that Romney's visit came three days after one by the vice president's wife, Jill Biden. When the Obama campaign launched a television ad this week criticizing Romney's business background, Iowa was among five states where it aired.
On the Republican side, a new "super PAC" aimed at turning out young voters is targeting a handful of states, including Iowa. Republicans are counting on the nation's slow economic recovery and mounting federal debt to tilt the state toward the GOP in November.
"Iowans launched Obama. We intend to sink him," said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican. "He misled us. He basically lied to us. He promised he was going to be a unifier and he would work together across party lines. He's done just the opposite."
After a surprise win over Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, Obama defeated GOP nominee John McCain by 10 percentage points in Iowa in the general election. The state has flip-flopped in recent campaigns; George W. Bush won a slender victory there in 2004 over Democrat John F. Kerry, after losing narrowly to Al Gore four years earlier.
Iowa is important not because of its electoral vote count — it has only six — but because winning it and other small swing states could help Obama get reelected even if he were to lose a larger state like Ohio or Florida.
"President Obama can lose a few states, but he can't lose all of those swing states, and some are going to be easier to get than others," said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.
The Obama campaign has reason for worry here. Republicans have made consistent gains in voter registration, and now, for the first time in six years, edge out Democrats. The national GOP promises a larger presence in the state than in past years, with staff sprinkled across 10 offices devoted to turning out the vote.
All this reflects the reality on the ground — there is far less enthusiasm for the president than there was four years ago. And Republicans in the state appear to be coalescing behind Romney, a trend hastened by the president's announcement that he supports gay marriage and Romney's reaffirmation that he opposes it.
Gay marriage is a pivotal issue for conservative Iowans, who in 2010 voted to oust three state Supreme Court justices for legalizing same-sex marriage. Another justice, David Wiggins, who supported gay marriage, is up for reelection in November.
"If there's a full effort like there was in 2010 against Justice Wiggins, that would have a positive ripple effect for Romney and all the other conservatives up and down the ballot," said Bob Vander Plaats, an evangelical activist who led the 2010 effort. "It's a base that has always been inspired to defeat Barack Obama, but always hesitant to throw their support behind Mitt Romney. However, now with Obama being clearly on record for same-sex marriage and Romney being clearly on record for one-man, one-woman, the base has found new inspiration."
But Romney has some fences to mend. While he put an all-out effort into his unsuccessful 2008 campaign in Iowa, his presence was limited before his second-place finish this year. He lost by 34 votes to Rick Santorum, who had a sliver of the money Romney had but spent far more time campaigning in the state.
"Look, Iowa's a swing state, and when we are seeing Obama or the first lady or the vice president or last week it was Jill Biden, when we're seeing those people in the state and we don't see the Republican candidate, then it becomes an issue," said Craig Robinson, publisher of the Iowa Republican website. "I think this visit is very important for Romney."
In Des Moines, Romney sought to return voters' focus to the economy but never mentioned that Iowa's 5.2% unemployment rate is far lower than in many other states'. He offered few specific prescriptions for reducing the nation's deficit, instead seeking to connect to the audience by lacing his words with imagery of the heartland.