By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 24, 2007
DES MOINES -- A year ago, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney gathered his campaign team for the first time at his suburban Boston home. There were PowerPoint presentations, and Ann Romney made sandwiches. "It was like the first day of school," said one senior-level participant.
It was then that Romney put in motion his strategy to become president: Win Iowa and New Hampshire by wooing fiscal and social conservatives, and use that momentum to overwhelm the competition in the primaries that followed. But with less than two weeks before Iowans vote, that strategy is in danger of unraveling because former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has seized the conservative mantle and has emerged as the front-runner. His sudden rise in the past month -- sparked by passionate support from the same Christian conservatives Romney has been unable to win over -- has raised questions about Romney's strategy.
"In Iowa, someone was always going to challenge Romney as a conservative alternative," said GOP consultant Scott Reed, who managed Robert J. Dole's presidential campaign in 1996. "Huckabee has caught the eyes of social conservatives in Iowa, and the issue is if they have grown enough in numbers to deliver a win."
Romney's advisers bristle at the notion that he could have run his campaign differently. They are particularly sensitive to charges that the former governor changed his positions on abortion, immigration and gay rights to be more in tune with Republican voters, particularly in Iowa. They say his conservative credentials are genuine.
And, they say, they always knew Romney would face a challenge like this, though at the December 2006 meeting, the talk was about former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani -- not Huckabee.
"We were sitting around with a PowerPoint," a senior adviser, one of a half-dozen who were at the December gathering, said on the condition of anonymity. "We weren't sitting around with a crystal ball."
A year later, Romney's top aides spend their time in meetings working to beat back Huckabee's challenge.
"Are there moments of quiet and sometimes not-so-quiet desperation? Of course," another longtime adviser said. "But . . . this is the strategy we have. We don't have the option of doing anything else."
Campaign spokesman Kevin Madden described the mood at the Boston headquarters as "determined" and "poised" these past few weeks, even as Romney's lead in Iowa has evaporated. He said staff members are following the lead of their candidate, who appeared calm as ever last week as he skipped across Iowa in a rented jet.
On the campaign trail, Romney tells how a friend, Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), told him in 2004 that he needed to start making preparations if he wanted to at least have the option of running for president.
Over the next year, Romney formed a PAC that he used to spread money to local candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire. In 2006, he became chairman of the Republican Governors Association, a position that gave him an excuse to travel regularly to those states.
And he began meeting with his brain trust: Spencer Zwick, his finance chief; Robert F. White, a partner at Bain Financial, the firm he started; Beth Myers, who would become his campaign manager; New Hampshire consultant Tom Rath; and Iowa consultant Gentry Collins, who headed the PAC. Benjamin L. Ginsberg was the PAC's lawyer and also a confidant. Ron Kaufman, a top aide to President George H.W. Bush, was present, as were Mike Murphy, a consultant who ran Romney's campaign for governor, and Dave Kochel, an Iowa strategist.
That group conceived the plan for Romney, who was hardly known outside of his home state and Utah.
"There are two ways to run: run as the front-runner, or you play the breakthrough/early-state strategy," said one of Romney's longtime advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "You don't get to choose."
The adviser added: "You burrow down deep and spend time building these organizations, going back over and over and over again. You are really playing for three years for about three weeks."
The idea from the beginning was to focus on Romney's business credentials and his reputation as a pragmatic problem-solver, as the savior of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and as governor of Massachusetts. It was assumed that Romney would have to work hard for acceptance in Iowa, where as many as 85 percent of likely Republican caucusgoers are against abortion rights.
"He's a Midwestern guy. He's from Michigan. His family was always well received in Iowa," a longtime adviser said. "We felt pretty good that we could do well in Iowa. And it was self-evident that if you are going to be running against John McCain, who was known in the party, and Rudy Giuliani, the fifth most famous man in the world, an early-state strategy was really the best -- and perhaps only -- way to establish a rationale."
But Romney advisers concede their candidate has spent more time than they planned talking about social issues. They say that is because rival campaigns have forced him to react, and because of the rise of Huckabee, who has coalesced more of the Christian vote than past candidates.
If Huckabee wins the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3, Romney's campaign will have four days to recover before making a stand in New Hampshire, where he is leading in recent opinion polls. Romney aides claim a potential upside for their candidate: Huckabee's meteoric rise has reset expectations for Romney, who will be credited with a meaningful win in Iowa should he pull it off.
Romney no longer talks about Giuliani on the stump. His advisers barely mention former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.). The message has become "all Huck, all the time," though in the past several days Romney also has had to contend with a resurgence by McCain in New Hampshire. Romney last week began a barnstorming of three early-voting states by assailing Huckabee as a liberal, adding his own voice to new negative television ads and to mailings that his campaign has begun churning out every day.
On immigration, Romney cited Huckabee's support for a bill that would have granted in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. On crime, he highlighted the 1,033 pardons and commutations Huckabee granted as governor. On the economy, he told reporters that Huckabee presided over a state budget that grew from $6 billion to $16 billion.
"I'm convinced that as people take a close look, that the good, conservative Republicans of South Carolina will be supporting a conservative candidate like myself and they won't be supporting Governor Huckabee," Romney said, campaigning in South Carolina on his way to Iowa. "But time will tell."
Romney received a boost last week when Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) dropped out of the presidential race and endorsed him, saying he believed Romney would protect the country's borders.
Huckabee spent the week basking in newfound popularity in Iowa. A month ago, he was having events in pizza parlors with 40 people and almost no press. Last week, 200 people packed into a raucous event in West Des Moines, with 50 more waiting outside.
Huckabee has described Romney as "desperate," and his descriptions of Huckabee's record as "dishonest," "misleading" and "unfair." For the moment, Romney's advisers insist, they feel apprehension but not panic. "Would we like it to be different? Of course," said one adviser who has been with Romney for years. "You have to trust the team. You have to trust the strategy. You have to trust what your original instinct was. I think that's where the governor is."
Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.