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Mitt Romney at a crossroads on Iowa Republican caucuses strategy

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DUBUQUE, Iowa — Mitt Romney returned to Iowa on Monday and tried to predict the future. About a year from now, he said, Americans would turn on their televisions and instead of seeing President Obama’s supporters celebrating in Chicago, they’d see a big headline that says “Mitt Is It.”

What Romney didn’t predict is what might happen over the shorter term — specifically, whether after months of dipping his toe in the water he would take the plunge and compete aggressively in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses that kick off the Republican presidential nomination contest.

Every day that the other Republican candidates struggle to consolidate the evangelical conservatives who could form a decisive voting bloc against Romney here, the temptation to go all-in in Iowa grows for Romney’s strategists in Boston. Competing aggressively here is risky, and while that decision could be rewarded with an unexpected win, it also would raise the stakes such that a second- or third-place finish could prove damaging.

For the candidate — a business consultant who soberly makes decisions based not on emotion but on data and more data — there remains what one close adviser called “an internal hesi­ta­tion.”

Whatever Romney decides to do in Iowa will be one of the key strategic decisions he will have to make as a candidate, and it may offer some clues about his decision-making process if he is elected president.

“The question is: Can he pivot now to take advantage of a huge opportunity — an issue environment that’s fertile and a field that’s weak?” said Douglas Gross, who chaired Romney’s 2008 Iowa campaign but has not signed up again in part because Romney has yet to make a heavy commitment to campaigning in the state.

“He’d have to swoop in here,” Gross added, “but I think he’ll continue to play it as he is. He’s a cautious candidate. He’s data-driven. He’s highly analytical and highly systematic, and he doesn’t have natural political instincts to follow his gut. There are times the data’s not enough.”

During his first run in 2008, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, perfectly executed his Iowa strategy. He spent more than $10 million here, filling the airwaves and organizing on the ground, caucus precinct by caucus precinct. The trouble was that it just wasn’t enough. Romney finished a distant second to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and left Iowa personally scorned, believing that Christian conservative voters had turned on him because of his Mormon faith.

This time, Romney is husbanding his resources, containing his expectations, hiring just five aides and relying largely on a volunteer network of his 2008 supporters. He has visited the state just three times since launching his campaign in June, and those visits have been carefully choreographed. During Monday’s trip, he delivered speeches at a sheet-
metal manufacturing plant in Dubuque and the local water company’s offices in Davenport. Romney, clad in Tommy Bahama blue jeans and a blue plaid work shirt, took no questions from voters — nor did he mingle in coffee shops and churches as his opponents often do.

But Romney did encourage his supporters to help him in the caucuses, now just eight weeks away.

Romney’s strategists say the campaign is likely to be a long marathon and they, and the candidate, are pacing themselves. Iowa, they say, is no different than the scores of primary and caucus states that follow.

“There’s no magic formula here,” said chief strategist Stuart Stevens. “It’s no different than what we’re doing in those other states. We’ve got a lot of supporters here, we want them to caucus for us and we want new supporters. There’s no Rubik’s Cube.”

So instead of tailoring his stump speeches here to the social issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, that excite so many Iowa Republicans, Romney kept his message focused on the economy and government debt. And he saved his swipes for Obama.

In Dubuque, Romney predicted that a generation from now, Americans would be asking one another, “How did you make it through the Obama Great Recession?” Romney pledged to bring change to Washington in the form of balanced budgets.

“I will slay the deficit beast,” he said. “It’s killing jobs, it’s shadowing our future and it’s keeping our kids from having the bright prospects they deserve.”

Romney cited his business experience as proof that he could wean Washington of its historic spending habits.

“To me, this is not an impossible dream,” he said. “It’s something I’ve seen happen in other settings. I’ve spent my life doing what you guys are doing. I’ve spent my life in the private sector. . . . In business, there’s no question about whether you should balance the budget. You have to balance your budget. Otherwise, you’d go broke.”

This is what Republicans such as Susan Ray came to hear. Ray, 62, a retail consultant from Maquoketa, Iowa, said she had already decided to caucus for Romney.

“We’ve watched him for the last five years,” Ray said. “We know who Mitt Romney is. Whether he shows up here in Iowa makes no difference to me.”

But it may make a difference to the undecided voters Romney may need to sway if he hopes to grow his support beyond the quarter or so of the electorate that recent polls show is with him. What Romney will put on the line to do so is a question the candidate will soon have to answer.

“It won’t be a decision about a gut,” Gross said. “He’s not going to say, ‘Hey, I should do well in Iowa because the people in Dubuque seemed to love me.’ It’ll be a data-driven exercise.”

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