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Romney's Pivotal August

By Justin Miller

Between heated exchanges last week and the Ames straw poll tomorrow, the first part of August could prove to be pivotal for Mitt Romney's campaign. Last week Romney showed he can be an agile, tough candidate in two surprise incidents on the campaign trail. More importantly, tomorrow's straw poll will be the first test of Romney's viability as a candidate and a win that meets or beats expectations will provide a boost as he seeks to improve his position in other early primary states like South Carolina and Florida where he currently lags behind the rest of the field.

Last Friday, an Iowa radio talk show asked how Romney could be previously pro-choice and a member of the Mormon church (which doesn't support abortion), essentially making Romney out to be a disobedient Mormon. Romney maintained there is a separation between his religious beliefs and actions as office holder, defending his faith throughout.

It's not the first time his religious beliefs have been called into question, but it was the first time Romney was visibly angry about it. It won't be known until winter if evangelicals will vote en masse for a candidate who happens to be Mormon (all other issues aside). In the meantime, they and other Republicans may empathize with Romney if he continues to be the target of hostile "gotcha" questions about whether he's truly a man of faith.

The day before that confrontation, Romney faced an angry New Hampshire waitress who pressed him on what he'd do about the cost of health care. The exchange, captured on video by the Washington Post, caused Romney to sweat but not to fall off message as he responded to the woman's emotional grievances with his health care plan.

With the waitress Romney showed he can be agile in an unscripted moment. At the radio station, Romney showed an unvarnished side that contrasts with his polished image, helping humanize him.

More important is tomorrow's Ames straw poll, where Romney enters as the heavy favorite. If Romney meets expectations with a convincing victory after being attacked on abortion by Sam Brownback, on immigration from Tom Tancredo, and seeing Mike Huckabee gain traction, he can show that his right flank isn't weak. However, it could still be vulnerable from Fred Thompson or a second-tier candidate that catches fire this fall.

An Ames win reinforces Romney's position as frontrunner in Iowa and will allow him to focus on two early-voting states where he is weakest: South Carolina and Florida. In the RealClearPolitics' average, Romney is fourth in South Carolina and tied for third in Florida. In both states he's more than 15 points from first place. However, Romney finished second in South Carolina and Florida fundraising last quarter.

"You're going to see a lot of me in Florida," Romney told reporters during a Tampa visit on Monday - indicating he was already looking past Ames.

Justin Miller is an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at © 2000-2007 All Rights Reserved

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