Is Romney Poised to Make a Multi-Million Dollar Gamble on Iowa?

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Rick Friedman / Corbis

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney holds a rally after filing papers to be on the New Hampshire primary ballot at the State House in Concord, New Hampshire, Oct. 24, 2011.

Last week, on his first visit to Iowa since August, Mitt Romney vowed to make up for lost time. “I’ll be here again and again,” he promised, alluding to the final sprint to the state’s pivotal caucuses. “I’d love to win in Iowa. Any of us would.” Iowans would be forgiven for assuming otherwise.

Romney has made just three visits to Iowa so far this year, opting to skip the Ames straw poll as well as a candidate forum last weekend convened by an influential social-conservative organization and attended by hundreds of the Evangelical voters who habitually flock to the first-in-the-nation caucuses. The absence stands in stark contrast to his first presidential bid, when he spent several months and $10 million — including some $7 million in television advertising — barnstorming the state in a Winnebago, visiting its 99 counties and tailoring his message to match each audience. The investment rendered Romney the caucuses’ early front-runner, a distinction that only made the fall more bruising when Mike Huckabee snatched away victory on the strength of a late surge. The narrative arc that emerged wasn’t that a little-known Mormon governor of a liberal Eastern enclave had placed second in a state where 60% of caucus-goers call themselves Evangelicals. It was that a pandering multi-millionaire had tried to buy the caucuses and failed.

Leery of being burned again, Romney’s campaign has tried to suppress expectations this time, insisting that the putative Republican front-runner would do merely enough to ensure a solid showing in Iowa on the way to New Hampshire. Now that strategy seems poised to change. Romney’s campaign is in the midst of determining how much time and money to commit to the caucuses, says an adviser — a critical decision that could reshape the nomination fight and rejigger Romney’s own strategy, including how much cash he’ll have available for other critical early primaries.

Romney’s official line is that their strategy hasn’t shifted. “Governor Romney has traveled there and will be back enough to demonstrate he is the best candidate to beat President Obama on jobs and the economy,” says his spokeswoman, Andrea Saul. But several Iowa Republicans say they expect Romney’s camp to ramp up their efforts in the Hawkeye State soon, arguing that the rewards would be vast enough to warrant the risks. Despite his parsimonious approach to the state so far — Romney has hired five paid staffers, opened no discrete offices and shelled out no money on advertising — a wave of good fortune has swept the state to within his grasp. Rivals that once seemed positioned to mount strong challenges have withered, a bevy of social-conservative candidates could divvy up the Evangelical vote, and an influx of more moderate caucus-goers driven by economic anxiety could tip the state to Romney, who has made economic growth and alleviating unemployment the crux of his message. A win in Iowa, coupled with a likely victory in Romney’s New Hampshire backyard a week later, could lock up the nomination fight early.

The flip side, of course, is that Romney could inflate expectations by lavishing time and money on Iowa, only to lose again and wound his campaign unnecessarily. But with the caucuses just 70 days away and Romney running second in state horserace polls behind only Herman Cain’s invisible bandwagon, the time to play coy has ended. “He can’t be a little bit pregnant when it comes to the Iowa caucus at this point,” says Doug Gross, a Des Moines lawyer who chaired Romney’s Iowa campaign in 2008 but is unaffiliated this cycle. “Now what he has to do is reach out and touch enough of his supporters so that they show up. That’s going to require personal engagement by the candidate.”

Experts say Romney could mount a strong challenge in the caucuses for a fraction of the $10 million he forked over in his first campaign — likely between $1 million and $5 million, depending on how heavily he chooses to invest in paid media. “I’m not sure he needs to spend very much to do well,” says Tim Albrecht, who served as Romney’s 2008 spokesman in Iowa and is now the communications director for the state’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad. “Governor Romney spent enough last time to make some very solid connections in Iowa. It’s not going to take a lot of financial resources. What it will take is human resources.”

By tapping into his existing reservoir of support — the roster of precinct chairs and committed volunteers that $10 million worth of attention bought four years ago — Romney could choose to compete with a targeted direct mail campaign and assiduous voter outreach. Both the governor and his surrogates have called old volunteers, peppered their email lists with notices and reached out with social media. Romney has also held multiple tele-town halls. The idea, Albrecht says, “is to amplify his appeal without amplifying expectations.”

But even without blanketing the Des Moines airwaves with ads, competing in Iowa could be a multi-million dollar gamble. And while Romney’s most recent FEC filing showed that he had $14.6 million cash on hand, shelling out a sizable chunk of it on a state that has already spurned him once — particularly when Romney could funnel that money into Florida, whose Jan. 31 primary takes on added importance now that Nevada no longer follows New Hampshire  — would be a risky bet.

The price to play may also be climbing. Rick Perry, the only candidate with a war chest that rivals Romney’s, is set to begin an ad blitz in the Hawkeye State this week, just days after Ron Paul launched his own. One of the primary questions Romney’s camp is weighing is whether and when to go up on the airwaves, which would send his costs in the state soaring. David Yepsen, the veteran Des Moines Register reporter who now runs Southern Illinois University’s Public Policy Institute, estimates Romney could pivot and launch an aggressive Iowa campaign replete with paid media for about half the sum he spent last time.

That, Yepsen argues, is exactly what he should do. “You’re in for a dime, you’re in for a dollar,” Yepsen says. “He’s the front-runner by a lot of metrics, and he’s going to be held to the standard of how well he does anyway. The date is settled, the field is settled. He could easily win this thing. My gut says he should shove in his stack.”