Mitt Romney’s trip to Iowa later this week deserves close attention.

Romney and Newt Gingrich are the only two candidates who could take advantage of an Iowa victory to build momentum down range in other primaries. All the other candidates probably have road blocks that would snuff out any spark an Iowa victory would produce.

If Romney wins, it means social conservatives are at peace with him — he wins New Hampshire, and he is going to be hard to beat, even if some Dixie states don’t let him run the table. If Newt wins, he is for real and could be competitive in South Carolina and Florida, especially if he is not one-on-one against Romney.

Saturday night, Romney skipped an evangelical forum in Iowa. Newt was there, and he did himself some good. With the spotlight on him and his remarkable verbal skills, Newt can convince skeptics that he is sufficiently conservative; he can also turn people off by lacking a human touch and by talking down to people. It is the new Newt vs. the old Newt. For more on Iowa, read Jennifer Jacobs, chief political writer for the Des Moines Register. All political junkies should add her to their favorites list.

Even though I’ve been deprogrammed a couple of times, I am still susceptible to the call of the Newt. The fact that he clearly knows what he believes and why, combined with his compelling logic, has hypnotic qualities. But this doesn’t necessarily equal voter appeal. He may have a ceiling at about 30 percent.

As the date of the caucus approaches, more Iowa Republicans will want their vote to matter. With the exception of Ron Paul, the sick and wounded among the GOP candidates will begin to see defectors and undecideds move to more viable campaigns.

Romney is still the steady front runner. No mistakes, no overexposure, no gambling. It will be interesting to watch and see if he becomes convinced he could preemptively kill off the opposition by investing and winning in Iowa. It would represent a major change in strategy for him.