DES MOINES, IA -- On Thursday, Mitt Romney makes his first visit to Iowa since August.
And with some polls showing Romney leading in the Hawkeye state, with his second-place finish here four years ago, and with support for Rick Perry declining, Iowa observers are once again asking this question: Should the former Massachusetts governor make a stronger play in Iowa?
“He could come out here and campaign aggressively and win in Iowa, beat all expectations, and frankly I think put it all away in the first state," said Doug Gross, Romney’s 2008 Iowa state chair who is unaffiliated this cycle. "It’s an incredible opportunity, but I don’t see him doing that.”
Gross added, “When you have an unformed field with multiple social conservatives in the race, with a lot of mainstream Republicans and independents looking for that person that can beat Obama and give voice to economic concerns, he is the perfect candidate.”
Steve Grubbs, a former Iowa Republican chair and CEO of a political consulting firm based in Davenport, agrees that Romney should reconsider.
“It would be smart to re-think Iowa because the battle between Bachmann and Perry creates a real opportunity for Romney to be competitive in Iowa. And I have a feeling, though, that he will continue to play this game where he keeps expectations low."
During his presidential bid four years ago, Romney staked his candidacy on Iowa. He was a relatively unknown governor from Massachusetts who needed to build his name ID. He spent millions of dollars and won the Ames straw poll, but came in second in the caucus to Mike Huckabee, a social conservative.
But this time around, Romney is running a much different campaign in the Hawkeye State.
“Our Iowa campaign is different, because we're relying more on volunteers while running a leaner, more efficient campaign,” said Dave Kochel, Romney’s senior Iowa adviser. “Our strategy is to work hard to bring Gov. Romney's message on jobs and the economy to Iowans.”
Besides the growing volunteer base Kochel says it has, the Romney campaign employs just four full-time staff in Iowa –- a state director and three field staff –- as opposed to nearly 40 employees last time. The field staffers, wearing their blue Romney t-shirts, are visible throughout the state passing out literature during any type of public events featuring the presidential candidates. They are also engaging with voters by making phone calls from a small office here. Team Romney also organized events recently for Ann Romney’s visit to Iowa, and was the only campaign in the state to organize debate watch parties this week.
Kochel is confident that the campaign’s strategy in Iowa is sound and Romney’s message will resonate well with Iowans.
“Gov. Romney has consistently said he respects the Iowa caucuses, and plans to compete in them,” Kochel said.
Although Romney’s campaign will not say where they hope to place in the caucuses this time -- after going all-in in Iowa last time around -- winning the caucuses is a relative term, Iowans point out.
“The whole name of the game in the Iowa caucuses is expectations,” said Tim Albrecht, Romney’s 2008 Iowa communications director and current spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad (R). Albrecht isn't supporting a candidate this cycle.
“I do believe the Romney people can get the same amount who turned out last time, so I think it’s a nice base on which to build. But they have to decide if they can build big enough and fast enough from that base to exceed expectations here.” Albrecht said.
Romney is actually leading in the state according to some polls. And while Iowans do appreciate retail politics and face-to-face interactions with presidential candidates, it appears the good impression Romney made previously may allow him to succeed with limited visits this time.
“Yes, I’d like to see Romney more in Iowa. But the thing is, he was here four years ago and he spent a lot of time here. We saw him every other week,” Des Moines resident Tony Belluchi said. “I will probably vote for Mitt because I think he has the best chance of winning.”
When Romney campaigns in Iowa tomorrow, he'll hold events in Sioux City, Treynor, and Council Bluffs.