CLINTON, Iowa – Something funny happened to Mitt Romney here on Wednesday: he drew a huge crowd.
So huge that when he showed up to deliver a stump speech at Homer’s Deli & Bakery, he went first to Rastrelli’s, the Italian restaurant across the street, to address a couple of hundred supporters who showed up and couldn’t fit inside the doors at the bakery.
As Romney stepped onto a wooden box in the dining room, he sounded dazzled and a bit bewildered by the showing. “What a crowd,” he said. “What a welcome. This response in Clinton comes as a bit of a surprise, I have to tell you.”
His wife, Ann, who is rumbling across Iowa with him on the campaign’s bus tour this week, told the crowd: “We’ve got double duty in this town, and we appreciate it. We can sense the enthusiasm.”
A few minutes later, Mitt Romney faced reporters and sought to keep his expectations down for next Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses.
“The numbers that are showing up are a lot more than we’d expected, and their level of excitement and enthusiasm and their willingness to caucus on my behalf is very encouraging,” Romney said. But, he added, “I can’t tell you what’s gonna happen. I can’t join the expectations game.”
Asked about his prospects of actually winning the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in a one-two punch that would put him on a strong path to the nomination, Romney kept himself from becoming presumptuous.
“I can’t possibly allow myself to think in such optimistic terms,” Romney said. “I just have to put my head down and battle as best I can, take my message across the country and see what happens. I can’t come up with a hypothetical setting that would be delightful but not necessarily realistic…. I know Iowa’s a big state, I’ve got a lot of places to go, a lot of people to convince, and hopefully I’ll be able to do so.”
About an hour later, as Romney cruised along a rural highway toward his next stop -- a town hall meeting in North Liberty -- fresh data streamed in accounting for what the Romneys seem to be seeing as they travel from town to town.
For the first time in recent months, Romney has opened a lead in Iowa, taking 25 percent of the vote in a new TIME-CNN poll, with Rep. Ron Paul running second at 22 percent.
Just don’t call Romney the Iowa front-runner.