Mitt Romney’s juggling act

Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney is juggling his schedule to make a strong play for next week’s Iowa caucus, all while shoring up his support in New Hampshire, a must-win state for his campaign.

The former Massachusetts governor is near the top of the polls in Iowa, and if he wins there on Jan. 3 and then gets a victory in New Hampshire on Jan. 10, he could get a quick knockout in the nominating race and save his resources for the fight against President Obama. 

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“If he comes in first or second in Iowa and wins New Hampshire, he will be the prohibitive favorite — it’s very difficult to see a scenario where he’s not our nominee,” said Al Cardenas, head of the American Conservative Union, who worked on Romney’s 2008 campaign. “Scheduling is one of the very top aspects of a good strategy. He’s got to be spending significant enough time in Iowa so the folks there feel he’s respecting their state and their caucuses, but must spend a lot of time in New Hampshire too.”

Romney struggled in the Hawkeye State four years ago, spending heavily only to lose the caucus to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. His campaign has been wary of setting expectations too high in Iowa this time around, instead focusing on New Hampshire, where Romney owns a home and has close ties. 

“The fact is that Iowa is the first contest, and the campaign recognizes there’s going to be a focus there for the next week,” said Kevin Madden, who was Romney’s 2008 spokesman and remains close to the 2012 campaign. “You have to adequately balance your resources and the time spent there in both states.”

Romney was in both states on Tuesday and will spend Wednesday through Friday in Iowa. So far he has campaigned for 13 days in Iowa and 55 days in New Hampshire. 

After seeking for months to set expectations low in Iowa, Romney has upped his game there in a big way since the beginning of December. His campaign has spent more than $1 million on television ads while an outside group backing him has spent more than $2.5 million, more than most other candidates.

He’s also spent more time there than in the earlier months. This is Romney’s third visit to Iowa in December, constituting nearly half the time he’s spent in the state this year. He’s also sent his wife, Ann, and some of his sons there to act as campaign surrogates.

Helping him balance his time is his large lead in New Hampshire: Romney has led every poll of Granite State voters for months, and most recent polls show him with double-digit leads.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is making an all-out play for New Hampshire, spending this week on a bus tour there and skipping the Iowa caucus. But Huntsman hasn’t been able to break through in the polls and while he could be an annoyance for Romney, he doesn’t appear to be able to stop the former Massachusetts governor.

Romney also doesn’t have to win in Iowa to remain the front-runner. Ron Paul is his main competition in the state, but a Paul win likely will help Romney because it will do more to disqualify the other candidates as the Romney-alternative than convince voters Paul should be the nominee — many Republicans strongly disagree with the Texas congressman’s foreign policy views, making it tough to believe he could ever win the nomination.

Even if Romney finishes third in Iowa, he has the best structure in New Hampshire and is the only candidate besides Paul with a large campaign organization past the two early-voting states, giving him an edge in a long race. That has already helped Romney, as he and Paul were the only candidates to get the 10,000 signatures necessary to qualify for Virginia’s primary ballot.

South Carolina is the next state in the nominating process, and every winner of its GOP primary since 1980 has gone on to be the party’s nominee. Romney has been criticized for not spending enough time in the state, causing him to squeeze in some visits there this month. He also won the endorsement of Republican Gov. Nikki Haley.

But if Newt Gingrich, Romney’s main rival, does well in Iowa, he could skip New Hampshire to focus on South Carolina, where he has more campaign staff in place than Romney, causing Romney to repeat his juggling act all over again.

Romney’s campaign has played it safe this election, shoring up his support in the Granite State and downplaying expectations in Iowa. 

“The governor and the entire campaign organization from the very beginning have expected that this was a campaign that could go longer than usual,” Madden said. “The goal was to be competitive and fight very hard in all of these primary states and right through to the nominating convention despite whatever happens in all those early states.”