Hughes offered Romney a hayride in his horse-drawn carriage, but the former governor demurred. Asked later whether he was a Romney supporter this time, Hughes said only, “I’m a horseman — just a horseman.”
Some Romney supporters in Iowa say they would understand if he turns elsewhere.
John Strong, 69, a retired Army veteran and Republican activist from West Des Moines, gave the former Massachusetts governor an Iowa license plate that read “ROMNEY.” But Strong said Romney would be “wise by not prioritizing Iowa so much, because of the far-right influence here.”
“I think he’s got a good chance of beating Obama,” he added, “but the problem here is to win in Iowa you’ve got to go too far to the right, and it will hurt him in the national election.”
The overall direction of Republican politics in Iowa has swung rightward on social issues, even since the last presidential election. Conservatives were galvanized in part by a 2009 Iowa Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage. They defeated three justices last year in retention elections.
One factor, however, could work in favor of Romney or some other GOP establishment figure this time. Where Huckabee had the religious conservative vote almost entirely to himself in 2008, there is likely to be stiff competition that will divide that constituency in 2012.
Pawlenty is an evangelical Christian, and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin could have strong appeal with religious voters as well if she decides to run. Also hoping to light a fire with grass-roots conservatives is former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who drew healthy crowds in Iowa even as his campaign stumbled out of the gate this month.
On the same day that Romney was cautiously testing his reception in several spots where he ran well four years ago, tea party darling Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was making her way through the state. GOP activists say she has been getting an enthusiastic reception. She also is likely to pick up the endorsement of a close ally, Rep. Steve King, who represents the state’s most conservative district and whose backing is considered at least as important as the governor’s.
“We’re all in agreement that [Obama] has got to go. The question is which tough hombre — or hombre-ette — will take on our president in 2012,” Bachmann said at a GOP luncheon outside Davenport. “And this is what I know. I know we need to have a strong, bold, constitutional conservative who has a record of doing what they say.”
Hosting the event in his capacity as Scott County GOP finance chairman was Brian Kennedy, a former state party chairman who the day before had announced he was signing up to lead Romney’s Iowa effort.
“Right now, she seems to have some traction. But it’s very fluid. Two weeks from now, it could be Herman Cain or Rick Santorum,” he said, referring to the former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive and the former Pennsylvania senator.
In Iowa, all things are possible. What happens from there, however, is an entirely different story.