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Romney's Early Iowa Strategy Faces Scrutiny

Romney's Early Iowa Strategy Faces Scrutiny

By Scott Conroy - January 19, 2011

DES MOINES, Iowa -- As he traversed the state at a relentless pace during his presidential bid four years ago, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was often quick to criticize his Republican rivals for not making a serious push to win the Iowa caucuses.

"If you can't compete in the heartland, if you can't compete in Iowa in August, how are you going to compete in January when the caucuses are held?" Romney said in a typical exchange on Fox News after winning the Ames Straw Poll in August of 2007. "And then how are you going to compete in November of '08?"

Romney had bet his candidacy on winning the first voting state and regularly held up to five public events a day from Sioux City to Davenport, while Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani spent the better part of their time in more politically favorable territory.

However, as he appears to be preparing to launch a second presidential bid, Romney has largely avoided the state. After a debilitating second-place finish in the 2008 caucuses, Romney has visited Iowa only twice since President Obama was elected, and he does not have any additional trips to the state currently scheduled.

Longtime Iowa Republican consultant Doug Gross, who chaired Romney's 2008 campaign in the state but remains unaligned with any potential 2012 candidate, was frank in criticizing Romney's decision to take a more cautious approach this time around.

"What he's got now is this base of people that he had touched over the course of the last campaign, and the longer he waits, the more those people are going to start looking around," Gross told RealClearPolitics in an interview at his law office in Des Moines. "And I know they don't agree with me on this, but I would argue that if he's serious about it, he ought to play hard right away, show that he's going to win here, use that base of support and build on it, and make it clear what he's about."

Gross, who remains one of the most sought-after GOP operatives in Iowa, said that he has received personal inquiries from all of the top-tier potential candidates except former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Gross said that he would decide who to lend his services to based on whichever Republican candidate he felt had the best chance to win a general election. He said he is disappointed in the relatively late start to this year's campaigning cycle, which he believes is a result of Romney's failed Iowa strategy during the last campaign.

"They're like generals who fight the last war," Gross said. "They saw Romney spending all that effort on the front end of the last race and coming in second and then Huckabee, sort of like an immaculate conception, winning the race by getting hot at the end. They're thinking, ‘We can do the same thing again, and we don't have to spend the cold winter in Iowa.' But the fact is that was the last war, and that only happened because of how the race got structured. It got structured because [then Kansas Sen. Sam] Brownback fell out and the only alternative for social conservatives was Huckabee."

Gross conceded that likely presidential candidates were compelled not to make serious inroads in Iowa before last November out of concern that they would appear to be self-serving before the critical midterm elections. But he praised former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, with whom he is scheduled to meet in Iowa next week, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, for being the only top-tier candidates who have done extensive early legwork in the state.

Gross singled out Pawlenty in particular for running the most aggressive Iowa strategy to date and said that the former Minnesota governor has placed frequent phone calls to him over the last few months.

"Right now he's positioned himself the best because he doesn't seem to be afraid to say that he actually wants to run," Gross said. "I've not found where you can be beamed into the presidency, so you've got to want it. You've got to go for it, and he's working at it and has been working at it for some time."

Should he enter the race as expected, Romney will of course be eager to win or at least exceed expectations in Iowa, and no one is suggesting that he will ignore a state where he retains significant assets.

Officially, team Romney's explanation for his lack of activity in Iowa is a simple one. "Mitt is not a candidate, and so therefore he's not keeping a candidate's schedule," Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom told RealClearPolitics.

But Romney's unofficial campaign has been busy firming up the support of county GOP chairmen and other Iowa officials who backed him last time and is preparing to target its resources in the state in places where Romney did particularly well in 2008.

But as potential rivals like Huckabee, Palin, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels delay their own decisions on entering the race, Romney is in no hurry to burn through financial resources.

Iowa will be on prominent display in the second week of August. The first presidential debate in the state is scheduled for the 11th of that month, and the Ames Straw Poll takes place just two days later. Strategists and state GOP officials agree that these two events will prove critical and are likely to weed out weaker candidates in what is expected to be a crowded field.

By then, the campaign will be moving at full speed, and despite his criticisms of Romney's early strategy, Doug Gross remains convinced that the former Massachusetts governor can do well here if he emphasizes his economic bona fides and avoids the strategic mistakes he made the last time around.

"He tried to become every man, and then he became no man, so he's got to figure that out," Gross said. "If he won Iowa, the election would be over, so why wouldn't you do that? Running for president is not without risk. You shouldn't do it if you're unwilling to take risks."

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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