SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Mitt Romney returned to the nation’s first caucus state on Thursday as the prodigal candidate prepared to make amends for neglecting Iowa’s traditionally coddled voters and to begin selling himself as the most electable, if not most conservative, candidate to take on President Obama next year.
Romney was greeted at this first stop by over 150 people at Morningside College, a noticeably larger crowd than the one Rep. Michele Bachmann attracted a week ago -- noteworthy given Bachmann’s more natural appeal to the social and religious conservatives who dominate caucus politics in Iowa. Every seat was taken, and the overflow crowd was lined up along the walls.
“Look, I want to get the support of Iowans,” said Romney, whose campaign had all but written off the state until recent indications he might do better than expected there. “Iowa comes first. You have an enormous say in who the next president’s going to be.”
Romney delivered his standard criticisms of Obama, saying he should stop campaigning and start leading the country, and ticked through a list of issues figuring heavily in the race, including the recession-prone economy and illegal immigration.
A number of moderate Republicans turned out to see Romney, and more than one complained that they felt overlooked by the steady stream of conservative candidates competing in the state.
“Everyone forgets we were a state that went for Obama. And our governor is a Republican,” said participant Matt Winter, 28, of Sibley, Iowa. “Everyone seems to focus on the Michele Bachmann campaign or the Rick Santorum campaign, and the very far right, and it ignores a lot of us who are living in the middle.”
Chuck Soderberg, a state representative from LeMars, Iowa, said of Romney, “I’ve observed him during the debates, and I thought he’s handled himself very well. And with his business experience, I think that is going to bode well to get this economy back on track.”
With several social conservatives competing in Iowa, Romney had focused more on New Hampshire and had not visited Iowa since August. For a brief period, it looked as though Texas Gov. Rick Perry might have the best chance with Iowa conservatives. But after his campaign was set back by a series of poor debate performances last month, Romney began to give Iowa a second look. He may have a chance with the state’s many undecided Republicans, who say that an ability to beat Obama is the most important factor in their decision.
Romney even postponed a large fundraiser in Omaha, Neb., scheduled for Thursday evening, so he could add campaign events to his Iowa itinerary, even though the Omaha organizers had already secured $150,000 in donations.
At his next stop in Treynor, Iowa, Romney made a point of discussing issues of local concern. During an economic roundtable discussion that included farmers, he asked detailed questions about the price of corn and the sulfur content of coal.
As the voters who traditionally go first in the presidential primaries, Iowa’s caucus-goers are used to such personal treatment from candidates. Romney in fact spent more money in the state than all the other candidates combined when he ran for president four years ago, only to lose to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who had developed a network of evangelical Christian supporters.