ABC News’ Shushannah Walshe (@shushwalshe) reports:
He’s not participating in next month’s straw poll in Ames, Iowa, but Mitt Romney is making moves to suggest that he won’t lie down and cede the state to GOP presidential challengers Michele Bachmann or Tim Pawlenty.
He announced this week five additions to his Iowa campaign team and held a tele-town hall with Iowa voters. His footprint is light — his only visit to the state this year was before he officially announced his presidential campaign — but he’s not ignoring the crucial first caucus state, despite tamping down expectations.
According to a report from the Des Moines Register and confirmed by the Romney campaign in Iowa, he spoke with nearly 10,000 Iowans during the tele-town hall and told them that despite skipping the straw poll, he will visit Iowa for the state fair next month. He’ll also be in the state for the Fox News debate in August and his Iowa team says that although he will leave the state right after the debate, he’ll be back to campaign sometime after that. On the tele-town hall, he told the Iowans listening in, “you won’t be seeing too little of us.”
According to the Register report, Romney said he will still play in Iowa despite not participating in the straw poll. “Nothing should be read into our lack of participation in the straw poll other than we want to do as well as we possibly can in the real contest that selects the delegates,” he said. And he reminded the listeners just how much time he spent in the state the last time around, reminding them of Mitt Mobile and how it visited all 99 counties during the last campaign. “And so we know the state, love the people of the state,” he said.
Romney told the Iowans on the call he would do it again and the campaign confirmed they are planning more.
That suggestion that Romney is “skipping Iowa” because of his not participating in the straw poll has become a prevailing thought in political circles, but observers in Iowa such as the former political director of the Iowa Republican Party, Craig Robinson, says it’s all about what happens after Ames for Romney. From that perspective, Romney will be able to see who’s left after the Aug. 13 contest and know who will emerge as a competitor after the caucuses.
“I’ve always thought Romney has a post-straw poll strategy for Iowa and I think that how this race has developed and has played out plays right into that playbook,” Robinson said. “All these candidates kind of got a late start and the field is still unsettled. And so I think Romney can avoid playing in the straw poll, which could have been dangerous for him to play in and he enters the field in late August, early September. We have pre-season games and we have the regular season. He’s like Brett Favre and he doesn’t want to do training camp.”
And the Romney Iowa team says it’s easy to explain: He already did training camp. Romney held hundreds of events, spending close to $7 million at the end of 2007 and the beginning of 2008 to come in a disappointing second to Mike Huckabee. The campaign will be different this time and Romney Iowa campaign consultant David Kochel says they have kept in touch with their old supporters with many volunteering for the campaign now while also seeing new support from Iowans focused on the economy. Kochel stresses that they are absolutely not skipping the first caucus state.
“If you look at the Pawlenty campaign or the Santorum campaign, they are going to spend dozens of and dozens of days in Iowa because they have to. It’s a state where they are going to focus all their attention, all their resources so they can break through. Gov. Romney is a national candidate. We spent a lot of days in Iowa last time pursuing the same strategy that these other campaigns are pursuing right now,” Kochel said.
Kochel also revealed some of that post-straw poll strategy, stressing that right now he’s “happy to have lower expectations.”
“We don’t have to be advertising in advance of the straw poll and all throughout the months before the caucuses because we already have very high name ID. Many Iowa Republicans already know how they feel about Gov. Romney. We’ve got a pretty good level of support right now and what we need to do is take the volunteer component of the campaign, give it more energy, bring Gov. Romney back not only for the debate and for the state fair he will be going to, but after that, try and demonstrate we want their support and we need their help,” Kochel told ABC News. “We’re not going to take things for granted. We are going to work for it. We’re hoping that we are going to be successful and do very well in Iowa, but we will do it with a fraction of the resources that we spent in 2007 and 2008.
Robinson, who also runs the website the Iowa Republican, points out that Tim Pawlenty has not been able to become Romney’s rival in Iowa yet, as expected, “He still has support and the fact that Tim Pawlenty has not been able to peel off those Romney supporters who are his prime target indicates to Romney or at least it should that, ‘Look, I can still come in and I have a sizable chunk of support in Iowa and I can build on it.’”
In The Iowa Republican’s poll done last month, Romney came in second to Bachmann with likely Iowa caucus goers with 21 percent of support to Bachmann’s 25 percent of the support.
Tim Albrecht ran Iowa communications for Romney last time around and now is remaining unaffiliated. He says Iowans still have good will toward Romney and remember how much work he put in during the last primary, but stresses for the Romney campaign it’s essential to tamp down expectations.
“Gov. Romney could still play in Iowa to a certain extent, but he needs to find the right balance so as not to increase expectations. If he can parlay his activities here into a better than expected showing while putting in less time and resources than four years ago, that will put him in a strong position coming out of Iowa,” Albrecht told ABC News.
Albrecht also points to the larger GOP caucus turnout he expects this time around because Democrats and Independents can register as a Republican that evening. With no Democratic caucus, that is a possibility and, Albrecht says, those voters motivated to vote against Obama will be voting on economic not social issues. Albrecht says that while about 119,000 Republican caucus goers turned out last time around, they could get 130,000 or more in 2012 and those might not be the evangelical conservatives people tend to think dominate the caucuses.
“For any additional caucus goers who arrive, above and beyond four years ago, Bachmann will need to make her case as to why she is the candidate for job creation vs. Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, where those voters may find a more natural home,” Albrecht said.
Of course, that’s only if Rick Perry jumps into the race.