Iowa is shaping up to be an ideal scenario for Mitt Romney, even though he's fighting for a mantle that carries with it little more than extra media attention.
As the polls opened this morning, Romney was in the top tier of candidates, which is where he needs to finish to avoid headlines suggesting that he fell short of expectations. His supporters calculate that Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, the other two candidates in that echelon, could beat Romney in Iowa without hurting his chances at the nomination.
Analysts predict that Romney will need 20 percent of the votes from the Iowa caucus to emerge as a practical victor. In the latest Des Moines Register poll, 24 percent of Republicans in Iowa said they favored Romney.
"Romney is sitting pretty good right now," said Henry Olsen, a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "He's going to come out of Iowa with either a lot of momentum or a moderate amount of momentum."
Romney will need the wind behind him before a competitive South Carolina primary in a few weeks, and Florida's primary at the end of January. If he's able to finish first in Iowa, and then meet expectations in New Hampshire by leading the other candidates by a wide margin, he might very well have the momentum he needs to withstand losses in the rest of the month's contests.
New Hampshire should be easy for him. He's already favored to win there (it's right next to Massachusetts, where he was governor), while Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are skipping it, instead centering their efforts on South Carolina. That means that Romney's margin of victory in New Hampshire will be a sign of his strength more than it is a real first-place victory.
William Galston, who advised the unsuccessful campaigns of Walter Mondale and Al Gore, cautioned that Romney shouldn't take New Hampshire for granted. In 1984, for example, Mondale easily won the Iowa caucus, but despite feeling confident about New Hampshire because of favorable polling, Gary Hart won the primary there, prolonging the Democratic nomination.
"I think Romney is a whole lot stronger in New Hampshire than Mondale was," Galston said. "But if people aren't really all that fond of you, but are just sort of settling for you, which was true for Mondale and is true for Romney, then strange things can happen."
Attentive voters might also wonder what ever happened to Newt Gingrich, who weeks ago was nearly crowned the established conservative alternative to Romney. Now Gingrich is fighting with Perry and Bachmann at the bottom of the pack over the conservative bloc.
But his opponents point out that for all the years that Romney has been a presidential candidate, he hasn't been able to grow his support.
"There's only 25 percent of the people that think Mitt Romney can win here in Iowa, so that's not exactly an overwhelming number," Perry said on Fox News today.