By Cameron Joseph and Molly K. Hooper - 10/14/11 10:00 AM EDT
The changing dynamics of the GOP presidential race have returned Iowa to its star status, giving Mitt Romney a chance to make a play for the state and lock up the nomination.
The fall of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) in the polls, along with the rise of businessman Herman Cain, have changed expectations and strategies in the early caucus state.
The former Massachusetts governor will campaign in the state next week after largely avoiding engaging there. His last trip was in August. Romney’s return follows a three-day swing through Iowa last week by his wife, Ann.
“It’s hard to overstate the importance of early-state momentum,” said Brian Jones, a top Republican strategist who worked on President George W. Bush’s reelection bid. “If [Romney’s] able to mount an effective Iowa campaign, win New Hampshire and then slingshot into Nevada, that would put him in a very strong slot for the rest of the primary calendar.”
Other leading Republicans agreed Iowa is up for grabs.
“Iowa is extremely wide open. I could make an argument for why all seven [candidates] could win this thing,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a 2008 gubernatorial candidate and head of the socially conservative Family Leader organization. “It’s risen in its importance because of the calendar shifts and the candidate dynamics.”
That’s a change of pace from earlier this year, when former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Bachmann seemed to have the inside edge and Romney
wasn’t looking to repeat his 2008 mistake — when he spent big in Iowa and came in second in the caucuses.
But an NBC News/Marist poll out earlier this week showed Romney winning the state with 26 percent. Cain was second with 20 percent, and Perry and Bachmann were tied for a distant third with 11.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was unaware of reports that Romney decided to aggressively compete in his state.
“He has made a decision to play? I hadn’t heard that,” Grassley told The Hill. “I think he probably would — he showed up pretty good in the last poll. He’s had his wife in there, that went over pretty good.”
Asked if Romney could be successful in the state, Grassley replied, “Of course he can,” but the veteran lawmaker stopped short of predicting whether Romney could go all the way.
“If I answered your question ‘yes,’ everybody would think I’d be endorsing him, and I don’t know who I’m going to endorse yet,” Grassley said, noting that, as in 2008, he probably wouldn’t endorse anyone.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a Tea Party darling and conservative kingmaker in the state, said Iowa is anyone’s ballgame at this point.
“Who’s most likely to win Iowa today? I don’t know. I don’t know,” he said. “There are more Iowans sitting back going, ‘I’m not going to make a decision yet.’ “
King said not to underestimate the support Bachmann, his good friend, has in the state, and noted Romney’s residual support from his 2008 campaign remained to be activated.
Craig Robinson, the editor of The Iowa Republican and a former political director of the state Republican Party, predicted that the best chance for a candidate to unite the field against Romney would come at Vander Plaats’s late November forum for social conservatives, where all of the candidates but Romney will speak. The event is expected to draw 1,500 diehard activists.
“If someone can go into those events and sell those people, they might be able to coalesce those people around their campaign,” he said. “I think Vander Plaats’s event may be the biggest event before the caucus — it could be crucial.”
Helping Romney in the state is the perception that Cain has not capitalized on his recent momentum to build an organization in Iowa, where turnout models and organization matter more than anything.
Republicans in the state say the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO has been completely absent since the Ames Straw Poll in mid-August and while the other candidates have focused on infrastructure and identifying their supporters, Cain has not done any of the things necessary to win the caucuses.
“He’s not locking up any primary support. Polls are just a number,” said Robinson. “He needs to have identified supporters he can communicate with. He has nothing; he has no idea who his supporters are.”
Sam Clovis, a well-known conservative radio host in western Iowa, said many of the other candidates had come on his show and that he was in regular contact with their campaigns. But he said that trying to reach out to Cain’s campaign has proven futile and that he was unsure if Cain even had a point person in the state.
“I don’t even know who to call, I don’t even know who his contact in the state is,” said Clovis. “I know a lot of people who are plugged in to everyone in the Republican Party here — and when I ask them who his contact man is, they just shrug.”
The Perry campaign has signaled it is taking Iowa very seriously. He was there last week and will be there again next week. Perry’s wife, Anita, has also made several appearances there.
“Perry would be able to reboot his campaign with a win in Iowa, and he desperately needs that right now,” Vander Plaats noted.
And there could be hope for any candidate.
Robinson said no contender had an obvious advantage over the others and that the conservative vote remained fractured and up for grabs.
“It’s wide open heading into the final crucial months as we head into the caucuses,” he said. “This is a critical time: between now and mid-November, this 30-, 40-day period is going to determine everything, and everything’s fluid.”