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Mitt Romney and the Iowa expectations game

at 06:30 AM ET, 12/27/2011

Mitt Romney begins a three-day tour through Iowa today, a trip sure to re-start the conversation about where the former Massachusetts governor will finish in the first-in-the-nation caucuses in a week’s time.


Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney pumps diesel into his bus during a campaign stop in Randolph, N.H., on Thursday. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
The Romney team — as they have done throughout this presidential contest — are downplaying his Iowa expectations, insisting that, unlike several of his main rivals, he doesn’t need to win the state and isn’t expected to do so.

They note that, before this three-day jaunt, Romney has only made seven trips to Iowa in the 2012 race, that he skipped the Ames Straw Poll — a traditional early organizational test — entirely and that there remains some lingering ill feelings among conservatives in the state due to his nasty battle with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in the final days of the 2008 Iowa race.

Given those variables, they argue that a top-three finish would be just fine to keep Romney’s momentum up as the campaign heads to New Hampshire — a state where Romney continues to maintain a wide lead — for its primary Jan. 10.

There’s merit to that argument. But there are a few pieces of information that might make it very tough for Romney’s team to sell a third- (or maybe even second-) place finish as a win.

First, and most important, Romney has been the favorite for the Republican presidential nomination for the entirety of the contest. Yes, the likes of Herman Cain, Rick Perry and even Newt Gingrich have risen and, in the case of the first two, fallen. But never has Romney been seen as anything but the most likely pick for the nod. He has been the best-funded, best-organized and best-staffed candidate from the get-go.

In other words, frontrunners win. Period. They don’t get to make excuses about extenuating circumstances and the way the deck was stacked against them.

Second, polling in the runup to Iowa suggests the race is basically a three-way tie for first between Romney, Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Both Romney and his aligned super PAC — known as “Restore our Future” — are now spending heavily in the state, and the former Massachusetts governor is flooding Iowa with surrogates over the final few days before the caucuses to make his case.

Combine Romney’s status as the national frontrunner with the fact that he is in a dead heat in the state a week out, and it’s virtually impossible to see how a third-place finish could be spun as a victory — particularly if Gingrich wins.

Does that mean Romney needs to win Iowa? No. But placement matters — second is WAY better than third — as do margins.

A narrow loss to, say, Paul would be just fine with the Romney team. (It’s not clear whether Gingrich could weather a third place finish in Iowa.) Finishing behind Gingrich is far less ideal and, again, depending on the margin, could give the former speaker the spark of momentum he needs to make a serious run at Romney in New Hampshire.

Iowa isn’t make or break for Romney. But how Iowa goes will tell us a lot about just how strong he will be heading into New Hampshire and beyond.

Gingrich’s version of first divorce called into question: A new CNN report casts doubt on Gingrich’s contention that his first wife sought a divorce, rather than he.

The filings obtained by CNN show Gingrich filed for divorce and his wife asked the judge to reject it.

Gingrich has been accused of serving his wife with divorce papers as she was recovering from surgery for cancer. The couple’s daughter recently penned a version of events saying that was not the case.

Gingrich’s campaign said it stands by Gingrich’s contention that his first wife sought the divorce.

Ron Paul — conspiracy theorist?: Two new pieces of news Monday suggest Paul has a conspiracy theorist streak.

Freelance researcher Andy Kaczynski on Sunday posted yet another relevant video clip — Paul in a 1990 documentary for the John Birch Society about how the United Nations was a threat to U.S. sovereignty.

Meanwhile, the Weekly Standard reports that a former Paul aide says the congressman entertained the idea that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were coordinated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Paul’s camp said the former aide, Eric Dondero, is a “disgruntled former staffer.”

Gallup shows Obama trending up: Gallup is the latest pollster to show President Obama’s approval rating improving.

The latest Gallup tracking poll shows Obama’s approval at 47 percent and his disapproval at 45 percent — the first time he has been in net-positive territory in months.

Other polling released last week showed similar improvement for the president.

The question, then, is why? Obama’s supporters will point to signs of increasing economic optimism, along with the president’s more confrontational tone with Republicans and a fight over the payroll tax cut extension that some say harmed Republicans.

Gallup also shows Gingrich still leading Romney.

Rothman vs. Pascrell thanks to N.J. map: The congressional map chosen by New Jersey’s bipartisan redistricting commission is a win for Republicans because it leaves Democratic Rep. Steve Rothman as the odd man out.

With the state losing a district, the question was who would get the squeeze. In the end, it was Rothman.

Much of Rothman’s current district was merged with fellow Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell, but Rothman’s home is in a conservative-leaning district occupied by Rep. Scott Garrett (R).

And now Rothman is saying he will run in Pascrell’s district.

Pascrell, 74, has said he intends to run again. Rothman has been in Congress for 15 years.

One analysiss shows Rothman actually has more of his old district in the new district than Pascrell.

Fixbits:

Romney’s new Iowa ad touts his conservatism.

A new Boston Globe poll shows Romney still leads by 20-plus in New Hampshire.

Gingrich, who has criticized Romney’s health care bill as governor of Massachusetts, initially praised him in 2006.

Rick Santorum and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) go hunting, but King doesn’t endorse Santorum.

Perry releases a new ad attacking his opponents for their service in Congress.

Romney dispatches a group of high-profile surrogates to Iowa, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R).

The Tea Party Express says it “supports” Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), but stops short of endorsing her.

Richard Winger defends those who didn’t qualify for the ballot in Virginia.

Mississippi’s new congressional map is on track for final approval

The Georgia GOP’s aggressive map gets pre-clearance.

Must-reads:

Growing wealth widens distance between lawmakers and constituents” — Peter Whoriskey, Washington Post

Republicans May Be Dealing Obama a Winning Hand” — Albert R. Hunt, Bloomberg

They Fume and They Bicker While Running City and State” — Michael M. Grynbaum, New York Times

Many Iowans struggle with political indecision” — David A. Fahrenthold, Washington Post

 
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