Mitt Romney made a cautious return to Iowa on Thursday, testing the waters for the first time this fall in the state where he staked his presidential ambitions four years ago only to leave politically defeated and personally scorned.

Nowhere is the Republican’s political strategy more carefully calibrated than here in Iowa. Continuing volatility in opinion polls seems to present opportunities for an outcome different from four years ago, but the uncertainty has left the candidate and his advisers with questions about how aggressively to compete in the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

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.

Strategists here say Romney’s support remains solid among the more mainstream, establishment Republicans. As Romney traveled Thursday across western Iowa — a heavily conservative part of the state that was the least hospitable to him in 2008 — he appealed mainly to friendly audiences of bankers, lawyers and small-business owners. He held a small-business roundtable session here in Treynor, focused on economic issues, before attending a meet-and-greet at the Council Bluffs Chamber of Commerce.

Romney’s supporters said they would like to see him make a greater effort in the state, maintaining that there is a reservoir of voters committed to no candidate who would be open to caucusing for him.

“I don’t expect them to do what he did last time, which is put the full rush on here in Iowa, but he could and should certainly be doing more here,” Siegrist said. “There’s a good bit of people who are impressed with him, impressed with his debate performances, and have a focus not just on the social issues but on the economy and jobs. I think he probably could make some hay with that, to use an Iowa analogy.”

Earlier this year, it appeared that Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), who was born in Waterloo, Iowa, would be a heavy favorite in the state. She won the Iowa Straw Poll in August but fell in the polls as Texas Gov. Rick Perry rocketed to the top.
But then Perry met serious resistance here to his immigration record and businessman Herman Cain has been the chief beneficiary of Perry’s decline. A Rasmussen poll of likely caucus-goers this week found Cain leading with 28 percent, followed by Romney at 21 percent, Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) at 10 percent and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) at 9 percent. Earlier this month, Romney led an NBC News-Marist poll of likely caucus-goers with 26 percent, followed by Cain at 20 percent, Paul at 12 percent, and Perry and Bachmann tied at 11 percent.

The volatility in the surveys, both in Iowa and nationally, is why in an interview last week, Gov. Terry Branstad (R) declared the Iowa contest “wide open.”