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.