WATERLOO, Iowa — For months, Mitt Romney and his top aides have been pulling out all the stops to downplay their expectations in Iowa, but there’s nothing they can do about it now.
If Romney does not finish in a strong first or second place in next Tuesday’s caucuses, he’s going to have some major explaining to do thanks not only to new polling that shows him climbing to the top of the pack in Iowa but also to the optics of the past few days of campaign events here.
Romney has been drawing crowds numbering in the hundreds wherever he goes.
They spilled out of a hotel ballroom in Davenport, Iowa on Tuesday night to hear his closing argument speech, they lined up at a coffee shop in Muscatine before the sun rose Wednesday morning to throw a couple questions his way and so many people — about 450 in all — showed up to a lunchtime meet-and-greet at a Clinton, Iowa deli yesterday that the campaign decided to stage an impromptu event with Romney at another restaurant across the street to accommodate the overflow.
“What an audience, what a crowd!” Romney told his audience of hundreds at a North Liberty, Iowa plastics factory last night. “This is amazing — the enthusiasm, the energy. This is fabulous.” http://bloom.bg/vhC8K5
Though political campaigns are notoriously expert at filling venues to create the appearance of a well-attended event, the growing fervor for Romney among the Iowans who are showing up to see him this week is palpable.
Romney is also boosted (and trapped) by his own poll numbers. A new CNN-Time survey of Iowa registered Republicans out yesterday showed Romney in the lead in the Hawkeye State with 25 percent support. His closest competitor, Ron Paul, received 22 percent, followed by Rick Santorum (16 percent), Newt Gingrich (14 percent), Rick Perry (11 percent) and Michele Bachmann (9 percent). http://bit.ly/u7hAkI
(Gingrich’s drop has been precipitous since a similar poll taken earlier this month when he was riding high in Iowa and pulling in 33 percent support.)
For his part, Romney has remained coy about the trajectory of his campaign and the burdens that come with it, telling reporters last night that “we’re moving upward,” and, “that’s a good sign.” http://abcn.ws/uBxp8S
At another one of his campaign stops before the new poll numbers became public, Romney said he was looking forward to a “strong showing.”
“I’m not predicting a win here,” he said. “I’d sure like to win in every state, but I think that’s true of every candidate. I just want to do well here. I’m happy that I’m getting an enthusiastic response, but I’ve got no predictions for exactly where we’ll end up in the tally.”
Not surprisingly, Democrats aren’t letting him off that easy. The Democratic National Committee blasted out a memo Wednesday morning under the banner, “Romney Now Expected to Win Iowa.”
But the Romney campaign is doing its part to fuel the expectations game here too. Romney, himself, told Iowans during a tele-town hall meeting on Monday night that he would be back in the state for New Year’s Eve and he’s expected to be back next week for a caucus night event.
Team Romney has also released a new Iowa television ad today complete with images of “cornfields and cattle, an iPhone with a map of Des Moines, manufacturing equipment, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, military graves, Romney meeting with voters,” according to the Des Moines Register. http://dmreg.co/tLQH6Q
“It’s the Iowa closer,” the campaign’s communications director Gail Gitcho told the paper.
BOTTOM LINE: The risk a couple weeks ago was that Romney would come in behind Gingrich, setting up a very dangerous situation for the former Massachusetts governor in New Hampshire. That risk is obviously much lower — if not completely mitigated — today. Instead, Romney’s challenge now is to prove that he can grow beyond the base of support he’s had since the very beginning of this contest. If he can prove that he’s got a broad base of GOP support, that will give him serious momentum going into places where he’s not currently favored like South Carolina.
ROMNEY’S CLOSING IOWA AD. From the Romney campaign: “Romney for President today released a new 60 second television advertisement that will run in Iowa titled ‘Freedom And Opportunity.’ The ad, which features video from his announcement speech, highlights Romney’s credentials as a conservative businessman who will defend the economic freedom and opportunity that have made the United States the most powerful nation in the world.” WATCH: http://mi.tt/tmYhEe
ABC’s Jake Tapper reported for “Good Morning America” today on Romney’s momentum heading into the final 5-day stretch before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. WATCH: http://abcn.ws/u3c0if
SANTORUM-MENTUM? He’s visited all 99 Iowa counties – many more than once – and he’s earned a reputation as one of the hardest working candidates in presidential politics. And all of those house on the campaign trail are finally starting to pay off. Rick Santorum has gone from near the bottom of the pack to the top three in Iowa, surging to 16 percent in the new CNN-Time Magazine poll out yesterday.
DON’T FORGET: Santorum’s weakness was laid out in the latest CNN poll too. Just 4 percent say he has best chance of beating Obama next year. Meanwhile, 41 percent of Iowa caucus voters picked Romney as best able to win next fall, 17 percent picked Gingrich and 14 percent picked Paul.
And just hours after the new poll was released the beaming GOP hopeful, clad in his signature sweater vest, spoke to about 100 supporters and those still making up their mind for almost two hours Wednesday evening. ABC’s Shushannah Walshe filed a dispatch from Cedar Rapids: During the question and answer part of the town hall Santorum was asked about Ron Paul’s support in Iowa, and the former Pennsylvania senator let loose on the Texas Congressman. “Ron Paul says he’s going to eliminate five departments. Ron Paul passed one bill in 20 years. What give you the idea that he can eliminate anything? I mean, he has absolutely no track record of building any kind of coalition to get anything done anywhere,” Santorum said. “I understand the appeal that Ron Paul has: it’s simple, it’s short — but there’s no track record there.” http://abcn.ws/sRtaLL
DEMOCRATIC COUNTER-PROGRAMMING. A Democratic official e-mails the Note: “On Thursday and Friday Democratic National Committee Vice Chair and Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak will be on the ground in Iowa to bracket the Republican candidates campaigning around the state. On Wednesday ahead of his trip, Rybak released a memo on Romney’s record to coincide with the launch of Romney’s campaign swing around the state. While in Iowa, Rybak will participate in multiple press events — including a press conference in Ames prior to Romney’s event on Thursday, and a pen & pad in Des Moines on Friday. He will also meet with Democratic Party activists and do a host of local and national cable interviews.”
MICHELE BACHMANN, RON PAUL CAMPAIGNS TANGLE OVER CAMPAIGN DEFECTOR. “On what should have been a triumphant end to a whirlwind 99-county tour of Iowa, GOP contender Michele Bachmann on Wednesday suffered a series of blows to her campaign that began with dismal new poll numbers and ended with her state co-chair defecting to endorse frontrunner Ron Paul,” ABC’s Russell Goldman reports. “State Sen. Kent Sorenson, a tea party Republican who joined Bachmann’s campaign in its earliest days, announced Wednesday he would support Rep. Ron Paul, changing allegiances just six days before the first in the nation Iowa Caucuses. Sorenson said he switched candidates because Paul was ‘the most conservative of this group.’ Soon after Sorenson made his announcement, Bachmann accused him of being paid off by the Paul campaign to abandon her. ‘Kent Sorenson personally told me he was offered a large sum of money to go to work for the Paul campaign,’ Bachmann said in a statement. Sorenson denied receiving any money following the announcement at a Paul rally in Des Moines. Sorensen said the race in Iowa has come down to a two man contest between Paul and former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, and he didn’t want Romney to win.” http://abcn.ws/uyZBe1
@jmartpolitico: Bachmann IA pol dir Wes Enos says he’s staying with Bach BUT that Sorenson’s move was “in no way financially motivated”
THE NOTE ON THE ROAD. The Note has arrived at Mitt Romney’s first event of the day — another top-of-the morning meet at greet. This one’s at J’s Homestyle Cooking, a restaurant in Cedar Falls, Iowa, where diners (and a phalanx of traveling press) have gathered over coffee and cookies to take the measure of the candidate. Romney has two other events scheduled later in the day, including a grassroots rally in Ames, Iowa. As we noted earlier, crowd sizes at his campaign stops yesterday filled venues to capacity — and then some. The crowd at J’s this morning is, once again, standing room only and the Romney campaign set up an “overflow” tent just outside the diner.
–Mitt Romney also vowed not to “kill” the iconic “Sesame Street” character Big Bird, but intstead just litter his show with advertisements, when answering a question about how he’d balance the budget and which programs he would cut at an event in Clinton, Iowa yesterday. http://abcn.ws/ry5Nee –ABC’s Michael Falcone and Emily Friedman
–Oops, redux: During the Westside Conservative Club breakfast at the Machine Shed in Urbandale, Iowa yesterday, Perry surrogate Sheriff Joe Arpaio accidentally called Iowans “Buckeyes,” but the audience quickly shouted him down with boo’s and no’s. Perry later stepped in to smooth over the situation and asked the crowd if there were any Cyclones in the audience. –ABC’s Arlette Saenz
RON PAUL GREETS IOWA VOTERS WITH A PROMISE TO BRING HOME THE TROOPS. A dispatch from ABC’s Jason Volack on the campaign trail with Ron Paul: Paul told a room full of veterans Wednesday night that he plans to drastically cut overseas spending. “It would mean that we would bring the troops home,” Paul slowly said, smiling as he touted the economic benefit during a salute to veterans rally in Des Moines, Iowa. Earlier in the day, Paul again questioned why the United States needed to maintain a military presence in Australia, Germany, Japan and South Korea — even as the death of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il raised concerns about the region’s stability. “How long do we have to stay in Korea?” he asked at a campaign event at the Iowa Speedway in Newton. “We were there since I was in high school.” Paul’s non-interventionist view for America is sure to incite even more criticism from his GOP rivals, who have been hammering the Texas congressman for his view that Iran should be able to develop a nuclear program for peaceful purposes. http://abcn.ws/utG6wH
GINGRICH’S ‘SEMI-SWEET CHALLENGE TO ROMNEY’ “A day after Mitt Romney compared Newt Gingrich’s campaign to Lucille Ball’s zany efforts in a chocolate factory, Gingrich went to an Iowa chocolate factory to challenge Romney on what he called his negative attack ads. ‘Gov. Romney had a cute line yesterday about my team resembling Lucy and the chocolate factory and I just want to say: here I am in the chocolate factory,’ Gingrich said at The Chocolate Season in Algona,” ABC’s Elicia Dover notes. “The semi-sweet barbs began this week after Gingrich’s campaign failed to collect enough eligible signatures to make it on to Virginia’s primary ballot. Romney scoffed at the Gingrich misstep Tuesday, saying, ’It’s more like Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory. I mean, you know, you got to get it organized.’” http://abcn.ws/rupUBE
NOTED: At least one voter The Note spoke to at a Romney campaign event yesterday cited Gingrich’s failure to get on the Virginia ballot as a reason he wasn’t supporting the former House Speaker.
NEWT’S PESKY DEBT. Newt Gingrich’s campaign said it has raised somewhere around $9 million in the fourth quarter, but is holding off on paying earlier bills from the campaign to fund its homestretch drive in the Iowa caucuses. “The campaign for the fourth quarter has raised a similar amount of money to what John McCain raised in 2007 at the same point. It’s about $9 million,” campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond said. The debt reported by the campaign last quarter was $1 million. The Gingrich camp said Wednesday it has paid back some debt to “mom and pop shops.” Hammond did not know how much cash on hand they would have. http://abcn.ws/sLfjqg
RICK PERRY UNVEILS NEW IOWA AD. “Five days before the caucuses, Rick Perry is looking to drive home the point that he’s the ‘outsider’ in the race releasing a new television ad specifically slamming candidates who served in Congress for a second time on Iowa airwaves,” ABC’s Arlette Saenz reports. Titled ‘Fox,’ the thirty second ad highlights four candidates who worked on Capitol Hill – Rep. Michele Bachmann, Rep. Ron Paul, Former Sen. Rick Santorum, and Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. ‘The fox guarding the henhouse is like asking a congressman to fix Washington: bad idea,’ a voice reads in the ads as pictures of Bachmann, Paul, Santorum, and Gingrich and graphics pop up on the screen. ‘Their years in Congress left us with debt, bailouts. Congressmen get paid $174,000 a year. We get the bill. We need a solution.’” WATCH: http://bit.ly/rWtPrj
SUPER PACS TAKE THE PRESSURE OFF. “Aside from the Iowa caucus on Jan. 3, another date looms that might offer a measure of each presidential candidate’s potential strength, and that date is Dec. 31, the deadline for filing fundraising reports for the final quarter of 2011,” reports ABC’s Matt Negrin. “But those numbers won’t tell the whole story about the amount of money spent to influence the outcome, campaign finance experts said, because of the rise of the super PACs that buy negative TV advertisements and aren’t bound by the same rules regarding donation limits that candidates must follow. … ’The rise of the super PAC has put less pressure on the Republican candidate to raise money in large parts,’ Corrado said. ‘While they’re always interested in raising money, the kind of demands that used to be the expectation of needing to raise $50 million or $100 million by the time you get to year-end haven’t been so intense.’ That also means that the seven Republican presidential candidates can slog through several primary battles and not have to worry as much about missing out on money they could scoop up in a general election.” http://abcn.ws/tL8UX2
THE PRESS DESCENDS ON IOWA. “An estimated 1,500 members of the national and international media are expected to descend on the metro area this week to cover Iowa’s 2012 Republican caucuses. And before they leave on Jan. 4, they will have dropped a small fortune at area hotels and restaurants,” the Des Moines Register’s David Elbert notes. “The focal point for caucus coverage will once again be the Polk County Convention Complex, which has been turned into a media filing center, complete with large-screen monitors and a Google-sponsored play area where reporters, bloggers and producers can relax on caucus night in colorful beanbag chairs, grab a snack or even go for a jog on a treadmill while checking their email. In addition to the truckloads of electronic equipment that the media are bringing to Des Moines, many of the producers, reporters and technicians will bring expense accounts that are greatly appreciated by metro area restaurants and hotels.”
MEANWHILE, IN NEW HAMPSHIRE. The New Hampshire Democratic Party is out with a memo this morning “calling on Mitt Romney to release his tax returns now. Waiting any longer would be unfair and a disservice to New Hampshire voters who are choosing a candidate in the next few days and have the right to know.” The N.H. Democrats are pointing to comments Romney made to reporters yesterday in which the candidate sounded willing to release his returns after previously saying he would not. “No day like today,” said Holly Shulman, communications director for the party. ” Waiting would tilt the process against early state voters who pride themselves on being the most informed in the nation. New Hampshire voters have a right to know.”
@TheFix: “They pick corn in Iowa. They pick presidents in New Hampshire.” — Jon Huntsman. Oh snap.
@PounderFile: Funny line from WH pool report…”Diners have been trying to takes pictures of POTUS, only to be chased off by advance staffers.”
–On the second day of his bus tour through the Hawkeye State, Mitt Romney will discuss jobs and the economy in Cedar Falls and Mason City, IA. Later in the evening, he will attend a grassroots rally with supporters in Ames. His sons Josh, Craig, Matt and Tagg Romney will also be out on the trail in New Hampshire.
–Newt Gingrich will continue his “Iowa Jobs and Prosperity Bus Tour” with stops in Sioux City, Storm Lake, Denison and Carroll.
–Ron Paul will hold town hall meetings in Des Moines, Perry, Atlantic and Council Bluffs, IA.
–Michele Bachmann will make several stops in Des Moines and Marshalltown before officially ending her bus tour through Iowa’s 99 counties in Nevada.
–Rick Perry will make stops in Washington, Cedar Rapids and Marshalltown, IA as part of his own bus tour.
–Rick Santorum will meet with voters in Coralville, Wilton, Muscatine and Davenport, IA.
–Jon Huntsman will campaign in Laconia, Boscawen and Wolfeboro, NH.
–Steve Forbes will stump on behalf of Rick Perry in Concord, NH.
–ABC’s Joanna Suarez
GOOD MORNING IOWA. Don’t forget to check The Note blog every morning for the latest edition of “Good Morning Iowa” — a one-stop-shop tip-sheet covering everything you need to know from the Hawkeye State, reported by ABC’s Shushannah Walshe.
DISPATCHES FROM THE TRAIL. Also, keep an eye on our new political website OTUSNews.com (www.Otusnews.com) The Note (http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/the-note/) and on ABC News/Politics (http://abcnews.go.com/politics) for rapid-fire updates from the campaign trail between now and the Iowa Caucuses. Follow our reporters in the field on Twitter:
Michele Bachmann: ABC’s Russell Goldman (@GoldmanRussell)
Newt Gingrich: ABC’s Elicia Dover (@EliciaDover)
Jon Huntsman and New Hampshire: ABC’s Susan Archer (@TheOnlyArcher)
Ron Paul: ABC’s Jason Volack (@Jason_Volack)
Rick Perry: ABC’s Arlette Saenz (@ArletteSaenz)
Mitt Romney: ABC’s Emily Friedman (@EmilyABC)
Rick Santorum and Iowa: ABC’s Shushannah Walshe (@shushwalshe)
Check out The Note’s Futures Calendar: http://abcn.ws/ZI9gV
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