Romney played Iowa smartly, but challenges loom down the line

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 3, 2012 

DES MOINES, Iowa — Mitt Romney calculated carefully that he had a good shot to win Iowa's Republican caucuses, or at least to come close, and he was right. With 92 percent of the votes counted, he was in an effective two-way tie for first with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

As a result, his presidential campaign got an important boost on Tuesday — but not a decisive one. Not by a long shot.

The Iowa caucus campaign exposed potentially troublesome obstacles that the former Massachusetts governor will face in the weeks ahead. He failed to ignite much passion among voters, and still must fight for the trust of the Republican Party's powerful conservative base.

"It was a head-versus-heart thing for a lot of voters," said Timothy Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa, regarding Romney's support. "We saw some uptick in enthusiasm as he campaigned more in the last few days, but a lot of people were sort of settling for him."

Romney is expected to win next week's New Hampshire primary easily; he's far ahead in polls there and hails from a neighboring state. But his failure to convince legions of right-leaning voters that he's their candidate could mean a rough campaign ahead in the next big GOP showdown, the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary.

"There are cultural differences" between Romney and South Carolina conservatives, said Clemson, S.C.-based Republican consultant David Woodard.

Romney has the backing of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who plans to campaign with him in New Hampshire this week. Romney also plans to visit South Carolina on Thursday and Friday.

"I don't think that it does anything for him in South Carolina," said Woodard of Haley's endorsement. "People can get lots of information from lots of places other than elected officials. And they don't have high opinions these days of elected officials."

Romney's strong Iowa showing, though, does illustrate why he's a formidable candidate.

He devised a strategy and carried it out with the precision of a military maneuver. For weeks, Romney operatives in Iowa kept expectations low. He largely stayed away from the state until mid-December, when he saw how splintered the field was.

Romney had another mission in Iowa: Deflate the two candidates who potentially posed the biggest threats to him down the line — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He succeeded.

Restore Our Future, the political action committee supporting Romney, spent millions on ads demolishing Gingrich's credibility, the candidate Romney saw as his biggest rival for mainstream GOP voters, particularly in New Hampshire.

Romney's other big target was Perry, who can raise enough money to mount strong challenges across the country. But Perry largely destroyed himself with his debate gaffes all fall.

At the same time, the Romney campaign was gentler with other lower-tier conservative candidates, such as former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, figuring each lacked the resources or broader appeal to mount a serious national challenge. It's important, Romney aides said, to keep as many as possible in the race through South Carolina. The more they split the social-conservative vote, the more likely Romney's totals will impress.

But Iowa also sends Romney a handful of warning signs.

It was hard to find voters eagerly embracing him. His rallies tended to attract more people than those of his rivals, but many were curious rather than supportive.

"He's not my perfect candidate, but he's more electable than most," Kent Hughes of Johnston explained at a recent Romney rally.

Romney should do well in New Hampshire, where he's had a massive poll lead for some time. He has a loyal corps of supporters who have followed his career for almost a decade, since he began running for governor of neighboring Massachusetts as a center-right candidate.

But South Carolina lurks like a dark curtain. Conservatives have signaled that they're not buying the "new" Romney, and his divide-and-conquer South Carolina strategy could be dangerous if Santorum sustains momentum.

"Santorum has been here a lot," said Woodard. "If he appears to be the white knight conservative, he could do very well."

ON THE WEB

Iowa Republican polls

How the Iowa caucuses work

History of Iowa caucus results

2008 Iowa caucus results

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