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As one GOP presidential candidate after another bounces up, and then down, in the polls, Mitt Romney has established himself as the slow and steady front-runner for most of the race.
Even if he's not thrilling the Republican Party's conservative wing, the former Massachusetts governor has managed to hover at or near the top. That's also true in the leadoff caucus state of Iowa, despite waging a low-key campaign.
The latest candidate to jump up in the polls, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is in Iowa four out of five days this week. Romney, meanwhile, has announced he will be in the state the day before Thanksgiving — only his fifth public visit to the state all year.
A Smaller, Leaner Operation
Last week in Davenport — one of the Quad Cities straddling the Mississippi River in eastern Iowa and northwest Illinois — Romney said he wants Iowans to get better acquainted with him.
"There are things on TV, right? There's even Monday Night Football, right? There are all these things, and yet you're coming out to get a look at someone who's running for president and saying, 'I'm gonna take some time to get to know this guy, because Iowa's gonna have the first say as to who our nominee should be, and that person has got to be able to beat Barack Obama and get America right again,' " he said.
He didn't take questions after his stump speech, but he asked the crowd of a few hundred people to stick around and shake his hand.
David Kochel is a consultant for Romney's campaign in the Hawkeye State.
"We have a small operation as compared to four years ago. Right now, we have four [paid] staff and me," he says. "We're relying a lot more on volunteers."
Kochel won't say how much smaller the operation is this cycle. But in addition to spending less time in Iowa, he says, Romney is spending a "fraction" of the $10 million he shelled out here during his 2008 campaign — more like a few hundred thousand dollars.
The strategy, Kochel says, is different this time around, because Iowans already know who Romney is.
"Romney wasn't known four years ago, and Iowa was a good opportunity for him to break through," he says. "We needed to spend a lot of time here, and resources, to introduce him to Iowans. And so we advertised early, we put a lot of focus on the straw poll ... and we were successful with that. But it's an expensive strategy."
'What He's Doing Is Working'
In 2007, Romney was the clear winner of the unofficial but much-talked-about Iowa Straw Poll. But he finished a disappointing second in the real contest — the Iowa caucuses — 9 points behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The campaign skipped this year's straw poll and has yet to buy any ads there.
All that has some Iowans wondering whether Romney is serious about winning Iowa. Des Moines attorney Doug Gross was Romney's state campaign chairman in 2008. He hasn't thrown his weight behind anyone yet and says he wants to see how the Republican field sorts itself out.
"The other thing I'm waiting to see, is see if he commits himself to the state of Iowa," Gross says. "It's difficult for me as an Iowan to get behind, wholeheartedly, a person who's not attempting to compete in my state."
Ultimately, how Romney campaigns in Iowa may not matter all that much. The most recent Des Moines Register poll had Romney at 22 percent to businessman Herman Cain's 23 percent lead. That was before Romney's latest visit, and before allegations of sexual harassment emerged against Cain.
Gross says Romney may do just fine in Iowa despite the low profile, given that his opponents are, as he puts it, "self-immolating."
"I mean, so far what he's doing — at least to his mind — has got to appear to be working," Gross adds. "The oldest rule in politics is: Don't get in the way of someone destroying themselves."
Even so, Kochel says Romney will be "campaigning vigorously" in Iowa, but he adds that he's keeping a bigger picture in mind.
"We have a whole country to focus on. Some candidates have the luxury of focusing on just one state — that's not our campaign," he says. "We're focused on the country and winning the nomination."