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Is It Time for Romney to Engage in Iowa?

Is It Time for Romney to Engage in Iowa?

By Erin McPike - August 31, 2011


A clear standoff has long held sway in the GOP presidential race, pitting the Mitt Romney campaign against the rest of the political class and punditry: The former Massachusetts governor insists he'll stay away from any in-party fights during the primary as long as possible, while nearly everyone else has demanded that he engage his rivals.

And now, as some political analysts concede that the onetime front-runner may have been playing it smart all along, a microcosm of the Romney-camp-vs.-the-world dynamic is taking hold in Iowa, the first nominating state on the calendar. Rick Perry’s quick surge in the polls has nearly every talking head wondering when Romney will get moving; nearly every strategist not inside Team Romney charging that he’s in a defensive posture; and every Romney aide calmly offering assurances that the campaign is still taking a cautious approach in the Hawkeye State.

To that end, Romney supporters there say that with Perry already crisscrossing the state, they want their candidate on the ground more. In just a few short weeks, the Texas governor has leapfrogged Romney for front-runner status in surveys of Republican voters nationally and in Iowa.

For months, though, Romney aides worked hard to downplay the campaign’s expectations in Iowa. It’s a caucus state with a base of evangelical Christians, and as a Mormon with some moderate positions, he’s a tough sell. He simply isn’t expected to win there at this point, or in South Carolina, for that matter. To Team Romney, it’s critical that the expectations game doesn’t whip back to suggest that he needs a win there. Instead, they want to beat to the drum for New Hampshire, Nevada, Michigan and Florida.

But to the rest of the chattering class, Perry has changed the calculus. If the Texan posts a win in two of the most important, traditional early states and performs well in the third -- New Hampshire -- that could be the death knell for Romney, they say.

So what, exactly, does Romney intend to do about this squeeze?

One key Romney organizer in Polk County, which encircles Des Moines, said that supporters have been told Romney will be in Iowa at least once per month for the rest of the year -- and maybe more. Connie Schmett, who is backing Romney again this cycle (as she did four years ago), said that the candidate’s wife, Ann, is expected there even more often.

Of course, in recent weeks, Romney has averaged once-weekly trips to New Hampshire, which far outstrips his presence in Iowa.

Schmett also noted that the Romney organization is beginning to identify precinct chairs for the caucuses.

So, in short, the Romney team will contest the Iowa caucuses and is organizing toward that goal now, but they still must keep expectations in check. A Romney adviser cautioned that there is a modulating game plan in Iowa, but its precise form is still to be determined.

The adviser insisted that the GOP field is not yet settled, as Sarah Palin could still enter the race. He also pointed to the three debates scheduled in September, with more in October, and noted that debates can be game-changers.

The message: It’s still early, so stay tuned.

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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