URBANDALE, Iowa — Mitt Romney has a problem in Iowa. It’s an enviable one, but a challenge nonetheless.
The former Massachusetts governor is the front-runner to win Iowa’s precinct caucuses on Jan. 3 — likely the first contest for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. But his support has leveled off, and he has yet to face a serious challenge in the state from any of his major rivals.
Romney’s built a formidable lead with a three-part conservative message of national security, fiscal restraint and opposition to abortion and gay marriage. He's sold that theme with hundreds of hours of face-to-face schmoozing and a multimillion-dollar television ad blitz unmatched — or even contested — by any other candidate.
“He’s had a free ride here. He’s had the stage all to himself,” said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. “The question now is how much the others want to challenge him here.”
His aim is to dominate the national news coverage the next day and use a victory in Iowa as a springboard to win other states and the nomination.
His chances for success are likely to depend on the answers to three questions that are hanging over the final 10 weeks of campaigning in the influential state:
— What will happen to his lead if other candidates, such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani or former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, start contesting him in Iowa?
— Will Romney still get a bounce out of Iowa if they don’t compete and wait to take him on in later-voting states?
— And if he does win Iowa without serious competition, can Giuliani or someone, such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, steal the spotlight with a strong second-place finish?
Romney has dominated Iowa for months; he’s done nearly 60 town hall meetings and 40 other campaign events in the state.
Giuliani blew off a straw poll conducted by the state party in August and this week made his first visit to the state in nearly two months. Thompson has made two trips and visited 12 towns since he announced his candidacy in September.
Romney’s campaign also has spent more than $8.6 million to air TV ads more than 11,000 times in the early voting states, most of them in Iowa. No other Republican has aired a TV ad in Iowa.
“We made an enormous investment in Iowa,” said Gentry Collins, Romney’s Iowa campaign manager.
It's paid off — so far.
The latest Iowa poll showed Romney with the support of 27 percent of likely caucus-goers, followed by Giuliani with 13 percent, Huckabee with 12 percent and Thompson with 10 percent. The others trailed well behind in single digits. The Strategic Vision poll had an error margin of plus or minus four percentage points.
But that’s where Romney’s been for months, and the new survey still showed a hefty 22 percent undecided.
“Romney’s support appears to have plateaued,” said David Johnson, a former Republican strategist who heads the firm.
Romney has lost ground among social conservatives, Johnson said, and his overall support is “the weakest in intensity” of any major candidate in Iowa.
Yet Giuliani, Thompson and Arizona Sen. John McCain all have failed to gain on Romney.
Only Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher who’s striving to consolidate support from social conservatives, gained in the recent poll.
Giuliani is spending just enough time and effort in the state to avoid accusations that he’s written it off — which could make him appear less than a national candidate — while giving him a shot at stealing a top-three finish on the cheap.
“Other campaigns have out-spent us. But we’ve done a tremendous amount at the grassroots level,” said Giuliani Iowa spokesman Jerrod Agen.
Though he’s not advertising on television, Giuliani is airing radio ads in Iowa and using mail to pitch himself as a strong-on-defense, tax-cutting executive, while leaving largely unmentioned his support for abortion and gay rights.
Thompson aides say he'll compete for Iowa, but won’t commit to advertising there.
And McCain, who wrote off Iowa in 2000 and skipped the straw poll this year, is trailing in single digits.
“Giuliani and McCain are playing a little here, but not much. Thompson is the missing guy here,” said Goldford of Drake University.
He expects them to challenge Romney more directly as the clock ticks toward Jan. 3, unwilling to cede him an easy victory. Then, Goldford said, Iowa and the country will see if Romney's for real.
“He’s had no negative ads run against him here. What we don’t know is if he’s made enough of a mark that he can withstand that.”
To see some of Romney's TV ads, go to: www.youtube.com/profile_videos?user=GovMittRomney