The man in the middle is off on the sidelines — again.
That’s just how Mitt Romney likes it this year. But it’s not going to last — and that’s only partly by his own doing.
Romney was the only top-tier candidate to skip a big weekend in Iowa that included a candidates’ forum organized by religious conservatives. It drew him some barbs from his rivals, and from spurned Iowa powerbrokers.
But Romney is making decisions like this one from a position of strength, as he has all primary season. Alone among the contenders — since he’s the only one to be able to boast of extended stability in the polls — Romney has the luxury of letting the campaign that’s swirled around him come to him, on his own terms.
Even so, Romney is in a position where he can make a serious play in Iowa over the last six weeks before the caucuses. The state famously resisted his expensive play in 2008, when he finished a distant second behind Mike Huckabee, who consolidated social conservative support late to ride to victory.
For Romney this year, the state is a tempting target: His presumed strength in New Hampshire could let Romney build unstoppable momentum by taking Iowa first. Romney advisers are nudging in that direction, and his considerable resources will be brought to bear on the state in the weeks to come.
Romney is helped by the fact that no one else has built an organization or on-the-ground buzz that suggests the kind of consolidation of support a candidate needs to win the caucuses.
Not counting Romney, six different candidates see pathways that lead them to the top in Iowa, and wins by any of them wouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility.
Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain have been the beneficiaries of the latest polling surge, both nationally and inside the Hawkeye State. Rick Perry has the money to vault himself back into contention, and he’s got Iowa’s airwaves almost to himself these days.
Michele Bachmann has faded in her native state, but she did win the contested Ames straw poll over the summer and retains strong pockets of support. No one has traveled more widely inside Iowa than Rick Santorum, and perhaps none of the candidates better aligns ideologically with social conservatives in the state.
And don’t forget Ron Paul. His views on foreign policy leave him well outside the GOP’s mainstream, but dedicated supporters are critical in the caucuses, and a splintered field means Paul could be well in the mix.
It’s precisely that splintering that gives Romney a window now. He has the resources to play virtually anywhere, and once again gets to make a decision from a position of strength in this race.