Romney walks back Iowa expectations

Mitt Romney took a cautious step back Tuesday from the towering expectations he set the day before for his performance in the Iowa caucuses, predicting he would end the day among the top three and downplaying the importance of a first-place win.

“I think I’ll be among the top group. I don’t know if that’s one, two or three, but all three of us will get a good send-off,” Romney said on MSNBC.

A day earlier, buoyed by the enthusiastic crowd at a campaign event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Romney delivered a more sanguine forecast about how he would fare in Iowa, where polls show he is neck and neck with Ron Paul, with Rick Santorum trailing close behind.

“We’re going to win this thing with all our passion and strength and do everything we can to get this campaign on the right track to go across the nation and pick up the states and to get the ballots I need and the votes I need to become our nominee,” Romney said on Monday.

But with less than 12 hours until Iowa voters fill caucus sites across the state to kick off the primary contest season, Romney assumed a safer tack of setting tempered expectations he can then exceed.

“If all goes well, I hope I become the nominee, and I take the White House,” he said.

The former Massachusetts governor also brushed aside Newt Gingrich’s stepped-up attacks, describing himself as the candidate with the fortitude to win a protracted fight against Obama and drawing a contrast with Gingrich, who has loudly bemoaned the negative attacks emanating from his GOP opponents and their supporters.

“That’s the nature of a campaign. I expect people to come after me,” Romney said. “If I can’t stand up to that, I shouldn’t be the nominee."