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With a different strategy, Romney returns to Iowa

DES MOINES -- Mitt Romney this afternoon will once again campaign in the state where his presidential ambitions first began to unravel back in 2008.

The former Massachusetts governor will make two campaign stops in Iowa, hosting a business group roundtable in Pella, and attending a Polk County Republican fundraiser in Des Moines.

This is only Romney's second trip to the Hawkeye state this year. While his name will appear on Saturday's straw poll ballot, he is not actively organizing a presence there, and will be in New Hampshire when the straw poll ballots are cast.

A light footprint in Iowa marks a significant departure from Romney's 2008 strategy. In that campaign, he poured in $10 million and of much of his time into barnstorming across Iowa building support and name recognition. Romney won the straw poll in 2007, and touted Iowa’s importance.

“If I’m lucky enough to be the nominee, you’ve got to win the purple states,” the former Massachusetts governor said in his straw poll victory speech. He ultimately lost the state to a surging Mike Huckabee.

Entering the fall campaign as the prohibitive front runner this time around, Romney's supporters say he is free now to pursue a different Iowa strategy.

"The first time we spent a lot of money on the straw poll because you have to; it’s a test of organization and strength, and to build name recognition for someone who came into Iowa with a 2% or 3% name ID," explained Iowa State Representative Renee Schulte, who was a county organizer for the Romney campaign in 2008, and is now a state co-chair for his campaign. "Now everyone knows him. This year, it would not make sense to use your resources on name recognition and name ID and the early television and all those things for a straw poll because his name ID is already high, and people already have respect for him. "

The campaign hopes that familiarity, and the former CEO's relentless focus on the economy, rather than social issues, will eventually be able to win over Iowa's famously socially conservative voters, particularly in the state's center and West -- Huckabee country in 2008.

"On jobs and economy, it’s your bread and butter; it’s your foundation," Schulte said. "If you don’t have a job, and you can’t feed your family and provide the things that you need then the other issues become secondary very quickly."

Despite the candidate's relative scarcity here, the message may be working. Romney's poll numbers in Iowa remain strong. Michele Bachmann leads in most Iowa polls, but Romney hangs around in second place – albeit in the 20s. There’s no telling exactly how a Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) candidacy would change the dynamic. Perry would likely become Bachmann’s chief rival to be the Anti-Romney. If Bachmann and Perry split the conservative vote in Iowa that would bolster Romney’s chances.

Following Thursday night's debate in Ames, Romney will fly once more to New Hampshire, the state where he has done the bulk of his retail campaigning this cycle, for an open house event on Friday. His campaign, which has stayed mostly below the radar, has pledged that the governor will return to Iowa more in the coming months, but Schulte says don't expect anything quite like 2008's campaign blitzkrieg.

"He’s running the campaign differently." Schulte said. "That’s what I would expect of him, since once of his special talents is turning around businesses and companies and things that didn’t work and making them into viable companies. When you run a campaign the first time, and it doesn’t get you where you want to go in the end, it doesn’t make sense to do the same thing twice."