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Is Romney’s Iowa luck about to run out?

For months, Mitt Romney’s staying power at or near the top of the polls in Iowa has surprised even his own campaign.

The former Massachusetts governor and his brain trust in Boston privately vowed that they would not make the same mistake that sank their 2008 hopes. Four years ago, Romney had bet it all on the nation’s first caucus state and was mortally wounded upon losing there to the underfunded, under-organized Mike Huckabee, whose visceral appeal to the heavily evangelical GOP electorate proved decisive.

This time around, the Romney team assumed that a consensus conservative alternative to the national front-runner would emerge in Iowa and they decided to rely on their candidate’s overwhelming strength in New Hampshire and long-term financial sustainability as the most viable path to the nomination.

mitt_romney_iowaRomney has visited Iowa infrequently, built only a minimal organization in the state, and did not even participate in the Ames Straw Poll that state Republicans insisted would serve as a critical springboard to any candidate who wanted to build momentum there.

But following an unlikely series of events, Romney remains near the top of the pack in the Hawkeye State, according to every poll.

First, Michele Bachmann’s standing began to tank mere days after she won the straw poll. Then Rick Perry plummeted from a double-digit lead upon entering the campaign to single-digit support, where he has remained for weeks.

Herman Cain and Ron Paul continue to look relatively strong on paper, but Cain’s myriad fumbles and lack of an infrastructure in the state raise questions about his staying power, while Paul has not been able to cross the 20 percent threshold, even as he has appeared to make some strides in branching out from his devoted core of support.

After practically becoming an honorary resident of Iowa in 2007, frequently holding five events a day as he crisscrossed the state, Romney four years later has somehow remained an Iowa front-runner while barely lifting a finger. As his fortunes there have continued to run unexpectedly high, one of the biggest strategic debates at campaign headquarters in Boston has been whether the nation’s first caucus state posed an opportunity that was too good to pass up.

Romney for months has benefited from the rest of the field’s relatively light footprint in Iowa. According to a tally compiled by the Des Moines Register, Romney’s three lead challengers in Iowa (as measured by the latest Bloomberg News poll) — Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Ron Paul — have held 222 events in the state to date.

That number may appear considerable at first glance, but note that Rick Santorum — who remains mired in the low single digits — has himself hosted a whopping 204 Iowa events, as he has run a traditional campaign there but has little to show for it.

Now, however, the campaign in Iowa finally appears to be entering a retail-heavy stage, as every major candidate save Romney and Jon Huntsman is making stops there this week, and Rick Perry is launching his latest television ad locally, as part of an effort to revive his floundering campaign.

Meanwhile, Romney is skipping a major gathering of Christian conservatives in Des Moines on Saturday, which all six of his major Iowa competitors are attending.

Romney does plan to hold one public event in Des Moines next week, but his quick foray into the heartland will be mostly a matter of logistical convenience, since he is planning to fly across the country to San Diego, where he will spend Thanksgiving with his family.

Why not make more of an effort? As one Romney strategist put it, “Our strategy doesn’t require us to win Iowa. It would be nice, but it’s not necessary.”

But now as the other GOP candidates begin to make their final Iowa pushes in earnest, it may become much harder for Romney to keep pace with them.

“Iowans are taking a closer look at the candidates,” said Doug Gross, who chaired Romney’s 2008 Iowa campaign. “Appearing at national debates and an occasional visit are not enough for the careful review Iowans give the candidates. So absence makes the heart grow less fond.”

According to knowledgeable sources, Romney has been personally reluctant to dive more deeply into the state’s turbulent waters, reflecting his deep-seated uneasiness about a place that ruined his White House hopes four years ago.

Campaigning in Iowa more vigorously might indeed pay off with a win — and effectively wrap up the GOP nominating fight just as it gets started, but it would also set off a rise in the Iowa expectations game that the national front-runner’s campaign has done a masterful job of downplaying.

During a recent fundraiser in Florida, Romney went so far as to predict that a Tea Party-backed candidate would win Iowa, while he would finish somewhere between second and fourth.

With fewer than 50 days to go before the caucuses, the candidates’ attacks against one another, which have thus far been relatively mild, are almost certain to become more overt as they battle it out on stump, over the airwaves, and during multiple Iowa debates next month (the dates are still being negotiated).

And there is still time for one of them to pull away from the rest of the field and emerge as a formidable long-term challenger to Romney.

“The Romney team wisely understands that anyone coming out of Iowa will do so with a rocket booster, so by spending additional time here and improving their own prospects, they are able to limit how much fuel those rockets get,” said Tim Albrecht, who was Romney’s 2008 Iowa press secretary before becoming Gov. Terry Branstad’s communications director.

By continuing to play defense in Iowa, the campaign hopes to limit the chances that they will suddenly find themselves on the defensive everywhere else.

An adviser promised that Romney would return to the state “multiple times,” but also noted that Chris Christie and other surrogates would be active in making his case, as the candidate himself spends most of his time elsewhere.

Source: CBS News

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