Four months ago, GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney was treating Iowa like an unnecessary detour on his way to winning the party’s nomination. And the caucuses, dominated by social conservatives unrepresentative of the party at large, seemed to political veterans increasingly marginalized next to other battlegrounds like New Hampshire, South Carolina, and even Florida.
Times have certainly changed in the Hawkeye State. Now, Romney appears poised to go all-in there, risking raising expectations in a state where his campaign once diligently sought to keep them low. And Iowa, once dismissed as a footnote, potentially could have the biggest impact of any state, determining whether the primary race ends as quickly as it starts or becomes a protracted war of attrition that lasts for months.
The changes have combined to throw the race into flux, free of a firm front-runner, that could break in any direction. Six weeks before the Jan. 3 caucus, even most long-time Republicans admit they have little idea which candidates will emerge as winners and losers. A mid-November Bloomberg News poll of the state found four candidates clustered at the top of the field within four points of one another. Businessman Herman Cain led with 20 percent, while Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, had 19 percent, Romney drew 18 percent, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., had 17 percent.
“Usually you have one or two front-runners at this point,” said Doug Gross, who ran Romney’s Iowa campaign in 2008. “Now we have four or five of them. Holy Toledo, it could go anywhere.”
Romney’s decision to play to win in Iowa, as reported by The New York Times, is a seismic change to the race both in the state and nationally. The former Massachusetts governor is quietly rebuilding a large organization there, the paper reported, and plans to begin airing TV ads soon. It’s a stark departure for a man who routinely skips marquee events like the Ames Straw poll, while focusing almost exclusively on New Hampshire.
The candidate himself confirmed Iowa's importance during a Wednesday appearance in Des Moines, when he fed the participants' egos about the importance of their state's caucus.
"Iowa has the first and in some respects one of the most powerful voices as to who our nominee is," he said.
Also tailored specifically to his Hawkeye audience was a slight religious reference. Romney usually leaves religion off the table, but when asked what distinguishes him from the other candidates, he spoke effusively about his wife, Ann, who wasn't there.
"She's a fighter. She was diagnosed -- gosh, I don't know how many years, about 12 years or so ago -- with MS, and has no physical impairment from it, by virtue of many things: great medicine; faith, I'm sure, prayer; and exercise to stay healthy.... She's a fighter and my hero."
Romney’s troubled history in the state is well known: He made it the centerpiece of his campaign in 2008, only to watch former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee zoom past him to deliver a crushing defeat. But 2012 features a far more diffuse field, with no candidate yet able to permanently consolidate the party’s evangelical, conservative vote or build a robust in-state organization that is usually the hallmark of effective campaigns. And in the absence of a Democratic primary, Romney might be able to attract new voters to turn out, potentially swelling the ranks of caucus-goers with moderates inclined to support him.
“If Romney can prevent them from going to Gingrich, Paul, or [Texas Gov. Rick] Perry, then there’s a nice opportunity for him to build on what he got in 2008,” said Tim Albrecht, who worked for Romney’s Iowa campaign in 2008 and is now a spokesman for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R).
Romney still faces stiff competition, and from two men whose path to the top of the field in Iowa also seemed unlikely just a few months ago. Gingrich and Paul are each well-positioned to compete for victory.
Gingrich’s rise in Iowa mirrors his surge nationally, where he now leads Romney in many polls. And he’s made moves locally to rebuild an organization in the state that just a month ago was nearly nonexistent: The Des Moines Register reported he rehired two staffers who had quit the campaign when it imploded in June.
“People see Newt as a conservative that’s willing to fight and willing to take on the left,” said Bob Vander Plaats, head of the social conservative group Family Leader. “I think that’s why Newt’s rising in the polls.”
Paul has benefited from what Republicans describe as one of the best, if not the best, organizations in the state. His appeal is still narrow, but he’s found ways to maximize his support.
“He’s the only candidate who has a great organization and an enthusiastic base who will vote for him no matter what,” said Steve Deace, a conservative talk radio host in the state.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., is still banking on support from Iowa conservatives, but her political stock is seen as having fallen since she won the Iowa straw poll in August. Perry also has been ramping up in the Hawkeye State, but with little success thus far. If he sticks to his current schedule, he will have gone two weeks or more by Dec. 4 without setting foot in the state.
Sarah B. Boxer contributed