Romney had been waging a stealth effort in Iowa: campaigning enough to blunt criticism that he is ignoring the state but not enough to create expectations that he might win.
With the Jan. 3 caucuses just 11 weeks away, no candidate has been able to consolidate support among social conservatives, who can form a decisive voting bloc but appear to be scattered among an array of Romney’s rivals. And Romney, who has maintained much of his grass-roots support from his 2008 bid — a solid quarter of the vote in polls all year — sees a chance to eke out a victory by plurality.
“There’s an opportunity here there wasn’t six months ago and I’d like him to take advantage of that,” said Brent Siegrist, a former state House speaker who endorsed Romney in 2008 and said he plans to do so again.
If Romney competes hard in Iowa and wins, and moves on to New Hampshire, where he is heavily favored, and wins there, it would be difficult for anyone else to stop his march to the Republican nomination. But the risks are just as great. If he competes to win in Iowa and falls short of expectations, he could limp into the later contests as a wounded front-runner.
Asked at a town hall meeting Thursday morning in Sioux City what he would do, Romney signaled that after months of neglecting Iowa, he will be more engaged here. But he made no specific commitments.
“I’d love to win in Iowa — any of us would,” he told about 150 students and area residents at Morningside College. He added, “This is not my first trip to Iowa, as you know, and I will be here again and again, campaigning here.”
But Romney said that he will not focus singularly on Iowa, as some of his opponents are doing.
“I intend to campaign in all the early states at least, and maybe all the states at some point,” he said. “I want to become the president of the United States.”
Romney’s aides have been equally vague about his strategy here.
“Governor Romney will be in Iowa enough to show he’s the best candidate to beat President Obama on jobs and the economy,” campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said. “We’ve been here before and we’ve always said we would be back. We want to win wherever Governor Romney’s name is on the ballot.”
Following a stop in Council Bluffs, Romney told reporters: “I’d like to win every state, but I’m smart enough to know I probably won’t win them all.”
Romney has a small staff in the state led by longtime Iowa strategist David Kochel. Relative to his efforts in New Hampshire, Romney has spent little money here. Before Thursday, he had made only two visits — one in May, ahead of his official candidacy, and the other in August, during the Iowa State Fair.