Mitt Romney has an Iowa problem. Or maybe it’s an Iowa solution.

The next few months will sort out which as the former Massachusetts governor and front-runner in the Republican presidential race decides just how much he wants to play in the Hawkeye State caucuses, which will kick off the nomination fight early next year.

Romney has largely kept Iowa at arm’s length, taking a pass on the Ames Straw Poll — an event he won four years ago and that is regarded as an early organizational test for the caucuses — and traveling to the state fairly infrequently. (He will be in GOP-heavy western Iowa this week.)

And yet, despite Romney’s lack of focus there, it still appears possible for him to win the caucuses, which are likely to be held on Jan. 3. In a recent NBC-Marist poll of state Republicans who probably will attend the caucuses, Romney led the field with 23 percent, followed by fast-rising businessman Herman Cain at 20 percent and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) at 11 percent. Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), who won the Ames contest in August but has struggled badly since then, took 10 percent.

“I think that Romney will and should increase his visits to Iowa and that he will do well here,” said Becky Beach, a longtime Iowa Republican activist who is not working with any of the candidates. “He had a solid ground game last cycle and from his perspective didn’t need to participate in the straw poll.”

In 2008, Romney flooded the Hawkeye State with time and money, building a large organization that includes Dave Kochel, a top-flight Iowa operative who is still running the former governor’s campaign — such as it is — in the state.

But that 2008 campaign is likely to linger in the minds of Romney strategists who wonder how much attention to give the state. At this time in 2007, Romney looked like the clear Iowa front-runner but watched as social conservatives — leery of his past flip-flop on abortion, not to mention his Mormonism — abandoned him in favor of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Romney never recovered from his Iowa setback, as Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) beat him in New Hampshire and went on to the nomination.

It’s the desire to avoid a repeat of that scenario — with Cain playing the Huckabee figure this time — that has led Romney to play down Iowa and focus heavily on New Hampshire, where polling suggests he is a steady and strong front-runner.

Bachmann’s victory at Ames was expected to turn her into a solid front-runner in the state, but Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s entrance muted that rise. Perry’s struggles of late have dampened his numbers in the state and led social conservatives to flock to Cain.

“When Bachmann was going to win Iowa, it would be written off,” said one Republican operative working in Iowa politics. “Iowa is still really risky for Romney. The last thing he wants is to lose the first state he plays in.”

Yet, with Bachmann, Perry and Cain — as well as former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) — competing in some form or another for Iowa’s social conservatives, a path exists for Romney to win with 25 to 30 percent of the vote.

A victory in Iowa — no matter how narrow — coupled with another win just days later in the New Hampshire primary would almost certainly end the race and make Romney the nominee.

(One needs only to look at the back-to-back victories of Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) in Iowa and New Hampshire in the 2004 Democratic presidential race to see the effect on the field of an early-state sweep.)

The prospect of closing out the race early — and saving money and energy to focus on President Obama — has to be alluring for the Romney campaign. At the same time, his team must have a “once bitten, twice shy” attitude about the Hawkeye State, given Romney’s less-than-ideal experience there in 2008.

In short: The risk for Romney in Iowa would be great, but the reward could be as well. The gamble he would make there could determine whether he becomes his party’s standard-bearer in 2012.


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