Mitt Romney was campaigning in Iowa on Wednesday, raising his flag a bit higher in the state that begins the presidential nominating process with its caucuses on Jan. 3.
This is only Romney's fifth visit to Iowa this year, but already his second this month. So far this year, he'd been keeping a low profile in the state where he finished a distant second in 2008 — despite an aggressive and expensive campaign.
Addressing a crowd of around 400 employees at Nationwide Insurance in Des Moines, Romney shared his "love" for the private sector.
"What you're doing allows our economy to grow, and that allows us to care for one other with the revenues in taxes you all pay," he said. "I love the private sector; some people don't like the private sector — I do. ... I want to encourage you to recognize that our days in the future will be even brighter than the past."
Romney repeated themes he has focused on before — reducing the size of government, cutting programs like Amtrak, and turning over control of Medicaid to the states. He was joined on the stump by a fellow Republican who had once considered running himself, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota.
Thune, for his part, joked that because of the abysmal approval ratings Congress gets these days, he had offered to come out against Romney's candidacy if that would be more helpful.
"These endorsements I don't think mean a lot," Thune said. "What really matters is what the people of Iowa think ... as we head into this next election."
Romney then opened a question-and-answer session by telling the audience "it'd be great" if they all participated in this year's caucuses — coming up in less than six weeks.
He stressed Iowa's significance to the primary process, but seemed a bit coy about asking Iowans to vote for him.
"Iowa has the first and in some respects one of the most powerful voices as to who our nominee will be. And whether that's me or someone else, the people in this room ... could decide who it's going to be," he said. "So I'd like you to think about that and hopefully take the occasion to actually go to the caucuses, because the country counts on you."
On The Defense
Romney was questioned by reporters afterward about his first campaign ad airing in New Hampshire. The ad uses a sound bite of President Obama saying: "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose."
That sound bite comes from the 2008 campaign, when candidate Obama was poking fun at something said by an aide to Sen. John McCain, his Republican rival. In the Romney ad, it sounds as if the president was speaking for himself.
Romney defended the ad, adding that it obviously "got under the skin" of Democrats and the president.
"Well actually, the ad, before it went out, was sent out with press releases describing that what the president had said about John McCain was now going to be used, to be said about him," Romney explained. "So there was no hidden effort on the part of our campaign. It was instead to point out that what's sauce for the goose is now sauce for the gander."
Mary Roth, a 29-year-old Nationwide employee, says she's tired of what she describes as GOP candidates "pointing fingers and blaming Obama for everything." But she's not firmly in the president's camp, either.
"I don't really like anybody right now," she says, laughing. "So I have no idea what's going to happen in a few months. I would feel guilty voting Republican, because socially we just don't see eye to eye. But from [Romney's] business standpoint, it's appealing."
For Romney and all the other contenders, the challenge is to convince voters like Roth they're appealing enough to support in January — and next November.