In Iowa, Mitt Romney wages a stealth campaign

— At this time four years ago, Mitt Romney was everywhere in Iowa. He popped up at ice cream stands. His glossy likeness landed in mailboxes. His sons drove a Winnebago they bought on eBay (the “Mitt Mobile”) to all 99 counties. And at Romney headquarters in Urbandale, two dozen paid staffers and an army of volunteers toiled in a space as sprawling as a supermarket.

This time, it’s Tim Pawlenty with the R.V. and campaign ads and shock troops. That big Urbandale headquarters? The former Minnesota governor has the lease now.

Romney’s new headquarters is an attic. Until a couple weeks ago, there was no air conditioning. His three paid staffers work on folding plastic picnic tables.

If it doesn’t seem like Romney’s playing to win here, that’s by design. The former Massachusetts governor, widely considered the national front-runner for the GOP’s 2012 presidential nomination, is waging a stealth campaign in the nation’s first caucus state.

Personally scorned by his exhaustive efforts here in 2008 only to see his campaign sputter after coming in second, Romney this time is trying to strike a balance between paying enough attention to Iowa to not ignore it altogether, while not appearing to be competing too hard.

Romney is engineering low expectations so that if he finishes second or third — or worse — it won’t set him back. Yet he also wants to be in position to pounce if he sees an opportunity.

Even his harshest critics here say an opportunity exists, with the field still fluid and Pawlenty, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and a half-dozen others competing for the social conservative base. No candidate has shown strong appeal on Romney’s Iowa turf — the Rotary Club set and GOP establishment types — although Texas Gov. Rick Perry could do so if he runs.

This leaves Romney and his advisers calculating whether, when and how deeply he should get in the game.

“I feel like we’ve gotten a bum rap about that — ‘Romney’s skipping Iowa’ — and it’s starting to get under my skin,” said David Kochel, Romney’s top Iowa strategist. “There’s a pace to a campaign. Right now, several candidates are focused on winning the straw poll and their pace is frenetic. We’re focused on winning the caucuses, so we’re not on a 20-day barnstorm, but as the caucuses get closer our pace will pick up.”

Although many of the social conservatives who hold so much sway here distrust Romney, he is still tied for the lead in Iowa polls. Romney has only visited the state once this year and is not competing in the Aug. 13 straw poll, which he won four years ago.

Yet, several Republicans here said his campaign team has been calling some of his 2008 supporters asking for their support in the Iowa contest.

“They’re trying to get people to the straw poll and put his name in to show that Mitt still has some jazz,” said Romney’s 2008 Iowa chairman, Douglas Gross, who is neutral this time.

Romney’s team is quietly keeping alive and even growing the vast volunteer organization of county-by-county precinct leaders they built four years ago. The candidate himself has personally called some his most dedicated 2008 volunteers, including Joni Scotter, whom he called to check in with on the 50th anniversary of her wedding in April.

Romney reported spending $156,000 here in the last quarter, more than in some other early states. (Most of that was for flyers mailed to other states, Kochel said, adding that he and Sara Craig, Romney’s Iowa state director, made a combined $15,333 a month in consulting fees.)

Romney summoned 9,820 likely Iowa caucus-goers on Monday night for a half-hour telephone town hall, where he assured his supporters: “You won’t be seeing too little of us.”

Romney will return to Iowa for an Aug. 11 debate, and is planning two days of campaigning, including attending the opening of the state fair. His aides are planning more Iowa swings for the fall.

“He’s not shooting a machine gun at an artillery,” said Tim Albrecht, a veteran of Romney’s 2008 campaign who now works for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R). “He’s going out to the shooting range and taking precision shots.”

The governor, in an interview in his stately office here, said he believes Romney has made a tactical mistake by skipping the straw poll.

“You’ve got a wide-open field and Romney’s got to be careful because Iowans are kind of spoiled by attention and if he doesn’t spend significant time and energy here it’ll hurt him,” added Branstad, who has not endorsed a candidate.

Romney did all that last time. He ran a textbook Iowa campaign, hiring the smartest consultants and courting Christian conservatives and party activists. Yet he was eclipsed by Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, after being dogged by his shifting positions on abortion rights and gay marriage and questions about his Mormon faith. Some Christian talk radio hosts here attacked him on the air daily.

“It’s almost like he fears the state,” Gross said. “It’s like if I pound your finger, you move your hand. He came out here and got his finger pounded, and so he moved his hand.”

But even some of Romney’s critics say he shouldn’t be blind to the opportunity the 2012 landscape presents.

“If the conservatives divide up their support, which one could envision happening, the ultimate beneficiary is going to be Mitt Romney,” said Bob Vander Plaats, an evangelical leader here who ran Huckabee’s winning campaign. “You could see Mitt Romney winning the Iowa caucuses.”

But uneasy sentiments about Romney linger among many Iowans. The other day, Chris and Brenda Malcolm stood on their neighbor’s back porch to check out Bachmann.

Asked what they thought of Romney, Brenda, 50, a homemaker, replied: “You mean Mitt? Everybody’s on a first-name basis with Mitt.”

Does she trust him?

“No.”

“We just haven’t gotten a real good feeling from him,” added Chris, 43, who works for a meat trading company.

“We’re looking for something different, something real,” Brenda said.

In May, Romney stopped by a Cedar Rapids farm for a picnic. He checked out two Percheron horses pulling a hay wagon and asked their owner whether they were geldings. When he was handed a hot dog, he proclaimed, “Hot dogs is my favorite kind of meat.”

Inside the barn, he told an audience of about 200 it felt like a family reunion.

“It’s good to be home,” Romney said. “Ahh, this isn’t exactly home. But it felt like it last time I was around.”

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