“It’s been a great victory for us here,” Romney told supporters , adding: “We’ve got some work ahead.”
But his Iowa showing — finishing just eight votes ahead of former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) — highlighted the big problems that still dog Romney: suspicions about his avowed conservatism, struggles to connect with voters and an inability to rally more Republicans around his candidacy.
“The result has some real fissure lines in terms of Romney being able to unite the party with the argument of electability,” said Robert Haus, a veteran Iowa operative who was co-chairman of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign here. “If you can’t convince members of your own party and expand that space four years later after millions of dollars of investments, how can you expand it this fall?”
This quandary has guided Romney’s decision-making all year. What Romney lacks in passion, he has tried to make up for with organizational precision and careful strategy. An examination of Romney’s efforts in Iowa illustrate how plentiful resources and smart tactics may not be enough for Romney to grow his support among important swaths of the party.
Romney’s team claimed momentum heading into New Hampshire, a must-win state. But what happened Tuesday night in Iowa, a presidential proving ground that has never been hospitable to the former Massachusetts governor, may say as much about the evolution of Romney’s campaign as anything thus far. That he found himself in a position to win in the end came down to equal parts luck, imperative and design, according to recent interviews with a dozen Romney advisers and senior campaign officials.
Even before he launched his campaign, Romney and his advisers calculated that he couldn’t win Iowa outright. In 2008, Romney left Iowa spooked and scorned after squandering $10 million and finishing a debilitating second. Romney never quite understood Iowa. And Iowa, it turned out, never quite understood Romney.
So this go-round, Romney’s team tried to engineer expectations to redefine what it meant to win. Although Romney has been the national front-runner, his team worked aggressively to try to make second or a strong third seem as good as first.
Instead of an aircraft carrier, Romney built a torpedo boat. He went from 50 staffers to five, from 11 months of television advertising to one. Through the fall, Romney barely existed here. He had skipped the August straw poll and made just two visits to the state all year.
Ready to ‘pivot’
Then, sometime this fall, an invitation arrived. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a natural ally who had not endorsed, was throwing himself a 65th-birthday bash at Adventureland. Romney wanted to go. But an influential group of Christian conservatives had a candidates forum the same day.