AMES, Iowa—Republican activist John Ortega was pleased Mitt Romney remembered his nickname from the 2008 campaign—“the general’’—when they ran into each other before Thursday’s debate.
“I told him it was good to see him again, and he said he would try to get back to my county,’’ said Ortega, who lives in Bettendorf in eastern Iowa.
Ortega hopes the presidential candidate wasn’t just making polite conversation. He’s one of a number of Iowa Republicans who believe Romney has a decent chance to excel in the state’s first-in-the-nation nominating contest—if he campaigns here more aggressively. Even after spending only three days in the state this year, Romney remains at the top of the polls. And with Texas Gov. Rick Perry entering the race, Romney, who is running as a businessman, could benefit from an increasingly fractured evangelical Christian vote.
Saturday’s straw poll could offer Romney more encouragement. Since he is not waging an aggressive campaign to win the high-stakes mock election, as he did in 2008, even a halfway decent showing would be a positive sign.
“He already laid the groundwork in 2008, and now he just needs to tend the field a little bit,’’ said Chuck Laudner, a former executive director of the state party, who is not aligned with any of the Republican candidates. “If he just does a few events, gets on a bus for a couple of days, and goes to some of the dinners, he’s going to get 20 percent of the vote. Why would you walk away from that?’’
Romney was burned here in 2008 when he lavished about $10 million on the state, only to come in second place. As a Mormon who once favored abortion rights, Romney was hard-pressed to win over the Christian conservatives who heavily influence GOP contests here.
His strategy for 2012 appears to be to spend just enough time and money not to raise hackles in a state whose voters expect to be courted. He's been dribbling out endorsements to telegraph that he's not taking Iowa for granted. The former governor of Massachusetts is counting on New Hampshire, which will hold its primary just days after Iowa, to provide the early win needed to propel him through the nominating process.
In contrast to some of his rivals who have been hunkered down in Iowa for days and even weeks, Romney limited his time here—squeezing a business roundtable, a party fundraiser, an appearance at the Iowa County Fair, and a televised debate into a two-day visit. He headed back to New Hampshire before the straw poll.
Craig Robinson, a former state party official and founder of a website on Republican politics, said that several hundred votes for the absentee Romney “would send a message.’’ But if he doesn’t surpass any of the candidates actively jockeying for straw poll voters, “he’s got a problem.’’
Robinson and other Republicans on the ground say the race is wide open. There’s no Mike Huckabee, the Baptist preacher and former Arkansas governor who won the caucus last time around, to unite the influential religious right. Socially conservative voters appear split among Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and Rick Perry, leaving an opening for a more establishment candidate like Romney to scoop up the fiscal conservatives.
Religious voters would have still another like-minded option if former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin gets into the race. She said “there’s room’’ on Saturday when she made an appearance at the Iowa State Fair.
In contrast to less well-known contenders, who need a strong showing here to generate enough excitement and momentum to keep their campaigns going, the Romney camp sees Iowa as a building block in his strategy to win enough delegates to lock up the nomination. That will be enough to bring the front-runner back to the state, a campaign aide said.
“Mitt Romney will be in Iowa enough to demonstrate that he’s the best candidate to beat Obama on jobs and the economy,’ said Romney spokeswoman Gail Gitcho.