By NBC's Alex Moe and Garrett Haake
DES MOINES-- Without media or fanfare, last week Mitt Romney took yet another quiet, but meaningful, step towards making a full-fledged play to win Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses: his campaign opened an official headquarters office here in the Hawkeye State.
“We’ve got a lot of volunteers and more activity as the caucuses approach and we thought it was time to get a little more space," David Kochel, Romney's top adviser in Iowa, told NBC News. "We opened the office several days ago. We don’t plan any grand opening events there.”
Romney's five paid Iowa staffers had previously been operating out of a small workspace at Kochel's consulting firm. Paid staff in Iowa will not be expanding, Kochel also noted.
The decision not to open the office with a ribbon-cutting rally or a stirring speech by the candidate is in keeping with Romney's demonstrated Iowa strategy thus far: keep the people wanting more.
Romney has campaigned in Iowa only three times since announcing his current run for the presidency, a far cry from his immersion strategy of 2008, in which he spent north of $10 million dollars and much of his time in Iowa. Romney, then a little-known former governor from a Northeastern state, had work to do just to raise his name recognition. Now, despite his comparative scarcity in the state, Romney leads or sits in a close second in nearly every statewide poll.
Romney's Iowa strategy has been the subject of reams of criticism, speculation and analysis by media pundits and other politicians. This week, the state's long-time Governor Terry Branstad, whose weekend birthday party will be attended by every candidate, save Romney, took a shot of his own.
“The advisers in Boston don’t get it,” Branstad said Wednesday in Des Moines. “They have that East Coast mentality... I think he’s making a big mistake by not coming here and spending more time."
Doug Gross, an unaffiliated Republican consultant here, who ran Romney's Iowa effort in 2008, believes the former Massachusetts governor's decision to not to run a more traditional ground-game in Iowa will hurt him with the state's voters, who take their role in vetting candidates very seriously.
"When a candidate like Mitt Romney only comes out here very infrequently, tries to ride sort of on the national polls and national debates, and then comes out here and doesn’t take questions or answer questions of the media either, it doesn’t suit us well," Gross said. "We think that person is, in a job interview, refusing to answer questions.”
Slowly but surely, that approach seems to be changing. Romney's campaign did not dispute reports they were shooting a television ad on their last trip to Iowa, and this Wednesday, when most candidates will be "down" for Thanksgiving, Romney will return to the Hawkeye state once again to campaign. The caucuses will be forty days away.