Romney could lock up GOP nod in Iowa

Mitt Romney increasingly is being seen as a winner in Iowa, even if he fails to win the state's caucuses on Tuesday.

A second-place finish on Jan. 3 in Iowa could lock up the GOP nomination quickly for the former Massachusetts governor, who appears all but unbeatable in the next contest — New Hampshire's Jan. 10 primary.

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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 is officially neutral in the 2012 contest but worked on Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign.

The political winds in Iowa have shifted from candidate to candidate throughout the past year.

Romney has bounced around in polls of the state with one poll out Wednesday showing him in the lead and another poll showing him in second.

The former governor fared poorly in Iowa in 2008 and has not campaigned aggressively in the state this cycle, which would make a second-place finish less damaging than for some other candidates. It would look even better if he runs a close second to Ron Paul, who most Republicans doubt can emerge as the GOP standard-bearer given his foreign policy views.

“If I’m Romney, Ron Paul winning the caucuses is the second best thing to me winning the caucuses, and that’s a pretty close second,” said Steve Deace, a prominent conservative talk-show host in Iowa.

A win by the Texas congressman will likely help Romney because it will do more to disqualify the other candidates as the Romney-alternative than convince voters Paul should be the nominee, say Deace and other observers.

If Paul wins, Deace said, “the entire Republican establishment will deem the entire process irrelevant and move on.”

Romney edged out Paul for first place in a poll of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers released Wednesday. He earned 25 percent while Paul took 22 percent in the poll, which was conducted ORC International for CNN and Time magazine.

Just two weeks ago Newt Gingrich led both national and Iowa polls, but he now seems to have been surpassed in the caucus state by Paul, Romney and Rick Santorum.

Gingrich was fourth in the ORC poll with Santorum leaping past him to third place, 16 percent to Gingrich's 14 percent.

A poll from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, also released Wednesday, showed Paul leading in Iowa with Romney in a close second, 24 percent to 20 percent. The former Speaker was third with 13 percent support.

After Iowa and New Hampshire, the groundwork is being laid for Romney wins in South Carolina and Florida. An outside spending group supporting the former governor's bid is airing ads in his favor in both of those next two early-voting states.

Cardenas said Romney’s campaign has worked hard and fixed some of the mistakes it made last time, but that the former governor also owed his position to luck.

“There are certain things you just can’t control,” he said. “In 2008 all the stars lined up against him and in 2012 they seem to be lining up for him.”

It's ironic that Iowa — the state that shattered Romney's 2008 hopes — could make him the comeback candidate.

Last cycle, he sank millions into the state only to watch former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee take the caucuses. This time, his campaign has been much more cautious about spending time and resources in Iowa.

But that doesn't seem to have hurt his standing.

Romney spent Wednesday on a bus tour of the Hawkeye State and brought in a cadre of high-profile surrogates — Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and former Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.) — to help him. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is scheduled to campaign for Romney on Friday throughout the state.

On Thursday, Romney will remain in Iowa. He's scheduled to meet with voters in Cedar Falls and Mason City, and will hold a Romney for President rally in Ames that evening.

Gingrich's fall has been Romney's gain.

Gallup's tracking poll of the GOP nomination showed Romney tied with Gingrich on Wednesday — both with 25 percent. Earlier this month Gingrich topped Romney by as much as 15 points.

Gingrich, who was the latest GOP candidate to surge in the polls, has been hammered by attack ads in Iowa and has seen his support evaporate there.

He has almost no campaign structure in Iowa, which is organization-heavy, and has had two weeks of rough news cycles. He and the groups supporting him have also been badly outspent on the airwaves — an ad from one of those groups claims that other groups have “outspent Newt Gingrich twenty-to-one.”

It's still possible a conservative candidate could unite the state’s large number of evangelical voters, who make up approximately 60 percent of caucus-goers in most presidential years, and surpass Romney.

On Tuesday, Santorum said what many in the state have argued: that he, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are fighting for the same group of voters.

“There’s the libertarian primary, which Ron Paul’s going to win. Then you’ve got the moderate primary, which Gingrich and Romney are scrumming for. And you’ve got three folks who are running as strong conservatives,” Santorum said. “I think if we win that primary we are in very good shape.”

But Santorum and Bachmann have limited resources to build a national infrastructure should they finish strong in Iowa — as in placing in the top three. Perry has the best organization in South Carolina of the three, according to some South Carolina Republicans, but he had 10 percent in the PPP poll, tying him with Santorum and placing the two of them one point behind Bachmann.

Jon Huntsman, who is skipping Iowa, is in a similar position in New Hampshire. Even if he manages a strong showing against Romney, he’s the wrong type of candidate to capitalize on that momentum in South Carolina — he has many of the same problems Romney does in appealing to religious southern conservatives.

All the signs indicate there's no candidate is in a position to stop Romney right now — and time is running out.

— This story was last updated at 6:19 p.m.