Iowa Republicans mixed on strategy for Mitt Romney in 2012

Amanda Carey Contributor
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Ask any Iowa Republican which Republican candidate will eventually win their state in the 2012 primary season, and Mitt Romney isn’t on any of their lists. Some aren’t even sure if he should put much of an effort into the state at all.  But while the former Massachusetts Governor gears up for what seems to be an imminent presidential campaign, the apprehension is mutual.

Though a Romney aide told The Daily Caller there will be a campaign effort in Iowa, all signs point to a bid that almost all but skirts around the state and instead focuses on primaries in Nevada, Florida, and New Hampshire.

But ask Iowans why Romney will do poorly in their caucus, and answers are mixed.

“How it works in Iowa is, there’s a process that the majority of caucus-goers want to make sure their candidates are pro-life and pro-traditional marriage” Craig Robinson, former political director of the Iowa Republican Party and founder of The Iowa Republican, told The Daily Caller.

It wasn’t so much an admission as it was just a statement of fact. In 2008, Romney spent an impressive amount of energy and resources to win the Iowa caucus, only to come in a distant second behind former Arkansas governor and Baptist Minister Mike Huckabee. This is despite the fact that Romney spent more time in Iowa than Huckabee, and loads more money – about $7 million – compared to Huckabee’s $1.4 million.

Now the question on everyone’s mind is what will happen in 2012.

“I don’t think he does play here at the end of the day because there’s no upside for him,” Ed Failor, president of Iowans for Tax Relief, told TheDC. “A person who is fiscally conservative but socially moderate is not going to do well here,” he said bluntly. “Romney has some of the greatest difficulty based on decisions he made as governor.”

But Tim Albrecht, spokesperson for Iowa’s Republican Governor Terry Brandstad, said that “right now it’s wide open” in Iowa and fear of a 2008 repeat shouldn’t keep Romney from campaigning in the state. “Last time around Mitt Romney ran in essentially four states,” Albrecht told TheDC. “And now he can run in 40 states. It’s just a completely different time.”

“They say 24 hours is an eternity in politics, well it’s been four years,” he added.

But recent events in Iowa have already indicated that less traditionally evangelical candidates might have a harder time. On March 5, the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition hosted an annual forum. Five presidential hopefuls attended – businessman Herman Cain, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Noticeably absent were Mitch Daniels and Mitt Romney.

At the start of the event, Chairman Ralph Reed openly took a shot at Daniels, who last year said Republicans should call a truce on social issues. Reed said doing so would be tantamount to “unilateral disarmament.”

“Republicans will be a permanent minority if they tell social conservatives to sit in the back of the bus,” said Reed.

There’s more to the Iowa-Romney story, however, than just how well he fits into the evangelical mold. Looking back at 2008, some say Romney built up expectations too high too soon, and came off to caucus-goers as not relatable enough.

“I think a lot of Iowans – they like where he’s at on fiscal issues,” said Robinson. “He [Romney] should have run as who he was, as opposed to placating the social-issue crowd.”

In 2008, Romney’ campaign was so intimidating, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani didn’t even compete in the Iowa straw poll, according to Albrecht. Huckabee, however, polled higher than expectations, and as candidates like Sam Brownback of Kansas dropped out closer to the caucus date, he gained even more supporters. This time around, Romney advisers are already working to lower expectations in the state.

When asked what Romney’s strategy should look like in 2012, Robinson said he could easily see Romney keeping his distance during the 2012 campaign, but staying away completely or over-analyzing his loss in 2008 would be a mistake.

“Is Iowa going to be difficult? Sure, maybe, but it’s not a state that I would write off,” said Robinson. “To turn your back on that sends an awful message for him.”

“It shows the weakness in Mitt Romney’s front-runner status that he’s opting out of Iowa,” a Republican strategist aligned with a potential opponent’s campaign told TheDC. “Iowa is the ideal start for a conservative front-runner but that’s obviously not Mitt Romney.”

As for the rest of the potential 2012 field, it’s not difficult to predict who will do well in Iowa and who won’t. On Daniels, Robinson said “he’s foolish calling for a truce [on social issues]. Mitch Daniels would play well here, but he’s not here. Iowans don’t wait around for the guy to show up.”

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who recently announced that she intends to form a presidential exploratory committee by June, “would do extremely well,” Robinson added.  However, “will [former Utah governor and former U.S. Ambassador to China] Jon Huntsman play well here? No, I don’t think he will.”

“I think people in Iowa know that this thing is ripe for an upset,” said Albrecht. “Pawlenty, Bachman, Santorum, Romney – any of those guys can find 30,000 supporters, but they’re going to have to fight like mad to get them.”