WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — At the Lutheran Church of Hope on a nippy Sunday morning, two days before this state launches the Republican nominating process, worshippers seemed more excited about the hot breakfast being served than the longtime front-runner, Mitt Romney. Have you tried the eggs? The bacon?
When pressed, their first choices ranged from Rick Santorum to Newt Gingrich to Rick Perry, who mingled with them after the service.
But as muted as the enthusiasm was for Romney, there was also a growing sense that he’s the strongest candidate to oppose President Obama in the 2012 general election. The latest Des Moines Register poll shows Romney with a commanding 48 percent on the electability question.
(POLL: Romney With Narrow Lead)
“I think Romney will probably win the nomination because there’s no true leader,’’ said 64-year-old retiree Kathy Davis, holding a cup of coffee in one hand and her 7-year-old granddaughter’s hand in the other. “Whoever the nominee is, we will vote for. But he’s going to have to put in a real effort after Iowa.’’
Many of the social conservatives who dominate GOP contests here are uncomfortable with the Mormon ex-governor of Massachusetts, who once supported abortion and gay rights. In contrast to the full-court press he lavished on Iowa four years ago, only to come in second, Romney kept his distance for months and didn’t contest the state party’s famed straw poll in August.
But as his more conservative rivals fell flat, one after the other, Romney ratcheted up his number of appearances and his advertising.
“He had the perfect storm in this state, and then he was ready to take advantage of it,’’ said Steve Grubbs, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa and a caucus veteran. “He put together a professional team and managed it well. He banked his money so he can run 60-second ads now. He chose his battles wisely.’’
The Register poll shows Rep. Ron Paul of Texas on his heels and Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, rising to third place, but neither of those candidates poses a serious threat to Romney’s nomination bid at this point. Paul’s fervid opposition to American military intervention defies the party’s hawkish instincts, while Santorum — like fellow social conservative Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 caucus — has little campaign organization outside of Iowa.
Though the poll showed Santorum in second place if only the last two days of surveys were considered, the Democratic National Committee on Sunday continued to focus its attacks on Romney. As part of a broader effort to portray Romney as a ruthless corporate titan, the party arranged a press conference with a former Indiana plant worker who lost his job when Romney’s investment firm took over the plant in 1992.
Romney took only a subtle swipe at his surging rival in a campaign stop in Atlantic, Iowa on Sunday, portraying the former Pennsylvania senator as a Washington insider. “Like (former House Speaker Newt) Gingrich, Sen. Santorum has spent his career in government, in Washington. Nothing wrong with that, but it is a very different background than I have,’’ he said.
Projecting the positive, confident air of the front-runner, Romney also noted Santorum has “worked hard.’’ Santorum has spent 103 days in the state, according to The Register, while Romney has spent only 17 days.
In part because of his soft footprint, Romney’s support among evangelicals, and with caucus-goers overall, is basically where it was four years ago. He got support from 18 percent of the evangelicals in the newspaper’s poll, compared to the 19 percent he got at the 2008 caucus. Overall, he led the Republican field with 24 percent, compared to the 25 percent he got four years ago.
Several churchgoers said it wasn’t Romney’s religion or flip-flopping on abortion rights that made them hesitate but something less tangible, and more fundamental: the absence of a personal connection. The buttoned-down multi-millionaire executive can be stiff on the stump, putting distance between him and ordinary voters struggling to make due in a bad economy.
Even Christina Davis, a 38-year-old executive coach who said she is backing Romney, said, “I think people like to see a candidate take a strong stand and having a bit of an edge, and he’s too polished.’’
In contrast, Ray Sullins, a 67-year-old businessman, called Santorum “a totally genuine individual.’’ But in the end, Sullins will likely caucus for Romney, whose business credentials seem to have a wider audience than Santorum’s staunch anti-abortion rights record. “I will go off the fence for Romney for one major reason: I think he has the best chance of beating Obama,’’ he said.
To many of these churchgoers, there is no higher calling, politically speaking, than depriving Obama of a second term. They see him as a “socialist’’ and a practioner of “class warfare’’ whose big government policies have steered the country wildly off track.
Inside the sanctuary, Pastor Jeremy Johnson gave a sermon well-suited to the beginning of a new year. “What time is it?’’ he asked the hundreds of worshippers. Time to kick an addiction? Time to take a career risk? Time to repair a relationship?
For Republican voters in Iowa and around the country, it is time to pick a nominee.