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Mitt on Huck, McCain, Ann

From NBC/NJ's Erin McPike
MT. VERNON, IA -- Riding a mini wave of momentum with a new MNSBC/McClatchy poll showing him statisically tied with Huckabee in Iowa, Romney made his way through the eastern part of the Hawkeye State with his wife.

Former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent (R) and his son traveled with the campaign in Iowa yesterday, as did pro-life advocate and attorney Jay Sekulow. Talent and Sekulow explained to reporters on the press bus yesterday afternoon that they have been meeting with evangelical Christian in leaders in the state to remind them of the importance of judicial appointments over the next few years. Sekulow insisted: "To nominate someone and then to see to confirming them are two different tasks. And for the task of confirmation, you have to have the political skills and leadership to do that," insinuating that Huckabee may not quite be ready for that.

But the suggestion that Romney is politically shrewd enough to cut through the partisanship and rigors of Washington at the same time that he's suggesting he's the candidate who can bring change to it seems to be a fine line. Asked that question early this afternoon, he explained to reporters: "Probably my best capability is in building a good team and working with people within that team and across the aisle to get the job done, and I'm not trying to take away from somebody else. They may have their skills. Sen. McCain has been there in Washington 27 years. So he certainly has political skill, but I believe that at this time, to change Washington, it would be helpful to have somebody who comes with more private sector skill, experience outside Washington. I don't think you change Washington from the inside. I think you change it from the outside."

Of course, Huckabee, his chief competitor in Iowa, is also a Washington outsider, and that could be yet another reason why they're locked in a fierce battle for support in the state.

A senior strategist in Romney's campaign noted yesterday that it's hard to poll caucus goers, and it's even harder to track numbers over the weekend. Romney acknowledged said at a stop in Oskaloosa yesterday, "This is going to be close. Some polls have me ahead, some have me behind. Most have me significantly behind but quickly catching up. I was 22 points behind about two weeks ago, and I think the most recent polls say it's gotten much narrower, like five or six or seven percent, and I even saw one that said I am ahead. Who the heck knows?"

Of course that just means that Romney is charging full steam ahead in the state – even though the campaign may seem more focused on McCain in New Hampshire because two consecutive early state losses would put a huge wrinkle in its early state strategy. In fact, when asked if he's concerned his attacks ads will affect his chances in Iowa, his entire answer centered on McCain and the attacks he has launched on the senator in New Hampshire.

Romney ended his remarks at one of his bus stops yesterday telling his voters that America needs strong values, a strong military and a strong economy, and he added, "I'm going to work like the dickens to do those things." That's also how he's maneuvering in the race here – six stops in western Iowa on Friday, six stops in the center of the state on Saturday and another five in eastern Iowa today. The stops have been short on time and remarks but packed with people due to venue size (lots of small coffee shops).

He began the day in Columbus Junction, a small town where allegedly no other major presidential candidates have been this cycle yet. At his second stop of the day here, he greeted supporters at the Hamburg Inn, where voters spilled out onto the sidewalk and in the street. There appeared to be more people outside the restaurant than actually inside.

After his third stop at a coffee shop here, Ann Romney marveled at the size of the crowds today and suggested it was probably because of the holidays and that people aren't usually working on Sundays. Nevertheless, she said she and her husband could both feel the momentum building today. In fact, during the event after she handed over the mic to the candidate, a voter shouted up to him, "She's cuter than you are." Romney agreed, saying "She's a cute girl. She's hot, too," and mocked the motion with a lick of the finger and a "sss."