DAVENPORT, Iowa – As he embarked on a four-city swing across Iowa on Monday, Mitt Romney doubled down on his pitch to Republicans here that he is the best-equipped candidate to defeat President Obama and to turn around the nation’s economy.
The former Massachusetts governor, who shares a lead in the polls here, drew a stark contrast not with his Republican opponents but with Obama at his first rally of the day. He seemed confident as a band of surrogates made the case that he is the most electable Republican in the field.
But after a week of drawing enthusiastic, overflow crowds across Iowa, Romney attracted only a couple hundred supporters to the fairgrounds on a chilly morning in Davenport. Big patches of the gymnasium floor where he staged his first rally of the day stood empty, and the applause for Romney was modest in comparison to his earlier events.
Romney tried to compare his vision for America with the a more government-dependent “entitlement” society he has accused Obama of creating.
“This is an election about the soul of America,” Romney said. “Are we going to remain America, the shining city on a hill, with freedom and opportunity, or are we going to become something we couldn’t recognize? And that’s what I think this election is going to come down to. We can remember a time when things were better. This has been a tough three years, but these have been a detour, not a destiny.”
Romney was joined on stage by his wife, Ann, and three of their five adult sons – Tagg, Josh and Craig – as well as his older brother, Scott, and two key congressional supporters, Sen. John Thune (S.D.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Utah). Together, they will travel in Romney’s campaign bus to a midday rally in Dubuque, an afternoon rally in Marion and an evening rally in Clive.
In his 2008 race, Romney won big margins in Davenport and Dubuque, the bigger cities along Iowa’s eastern border, and his campaign team has been trying to maximize turnout among his past supporters here and in other strongholds, such as Council Bluffs and Sioux City along the western border.
“This county did good things for me last time around,” Romney told the Davenport crowd. “I need you to get out and do that again with even more votes. …Get out and vote, vote, vote! … Boy, I hope we can get this to go across the entire state.”
Ann Romney said she and her husband were feeding off the energy they have been seeing on the campaign trail in Iowa, a state long seen as inhospitable to Romney’s candidacy.
“I sense something happening as we’ve been going across Iowa,” she told the crowd. “I sense a feeling, a coalescing, a momentum or whatever it is you want to call it, around Mitt. And I think people are starting to figure out that this is the guy that is going to beat Barack Obama.”
Thune, taking the stage in a leather jacket and cowboy boots, said he had endorsed Romney in part because of his business experience.
“He is the right person for the times,” Thune said. “He has the right experience, the right background, the right skill set and the right know-how to get this economy going again and to get this country turned around in the right direction.”
Then Thune, who had considered a presidential bid of his own last spring, pressed the Romney campaign’s electability argument.
“Think about this question,” Thune told Iowa voters. “Who is best equipped to actually win the election in November and to defeat Barack Obama? That is a very important factor in this equation. You’ve got a lot of candidates who are running, but we’ve got to have somebody who can come out of the nominating process here as Republicans and can actually go toe to toe and face off with this president and defeat him in 2012.”
Meanwhile, Romney’s advisers were laboring Monday to play down the governor’s expectations for the Iowa caucuses, saying they do not need to win and that the nominating contest will continue on for many states.
“We hope to do well in Iowa, but the primary is not going to be decided by a single contest,” Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told reporters.
Fehrnstrom said the campaign was not particularly worried about Rick Santorum’s surging candidacy here. He highlighted the former Pennsylvania senator’s years of experience in Washington and contrasted that with Romney’s time in the private sector.
Asked what the campaign’s strategy would be to beat Santorum, Fehrnstrom said: “We’ll see him in New Hampshire.”
A few minutes earlier, the Romney campaign was flexing its muscles in New Hampshire, showing that it is not losing sight of the state amid the Iowa crush. The campaign announced that two of Romney’s top New Hampshire surrogates – former governor John Sununu and Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas – would rally supporters Monday in Manchester. And Romney rolled out the endorsements of 15 state representatives, bringing his total support from the New Hampshire State House to 73 representatives.