With Rivals Reeling, Iowa is Wide Open For Romney

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Ralf-Finn Hestoft / Corbis

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses supporters at a campaign rally at the American Polish Cultural Center in Troy, Michigan.

The Associated Press reports that Mitt Romney is preparing to go up on the air in Iowa after shooting a spot during his visit to a sheet-metal manufacturer in Dubuque earlier this week. The move suggests that after months of tamping down expectations, Romney is gearing up to make a strong play for the state’s caucuses. 

The only surprising aspect of this decision is that Romney was able to defer it for so long. For months, his team has been active beneath the radar, touching base with the network of supporters the former Massachusetts governor assembled during his campaign in the state four years ago. And while Romney’s campaign has been publicly adamant that its minimalist approach to the caucus hasn’t shifted, behind the scenes his brain trust has been mulling a broader investment in the state, both in terms of time and capital. There is only so long Iowans are prepared to wait to be wooed, and Republican campaign veterans in the state have long urged Romney to take advantage of the opening provided by a weak field by making the tactical transition from covert ground game to full-blown push.

Going up on the air is not necessarily an indication that Romney has elected for aggression. In some ways, feckless opponents have forced his hand. Romney’s preference was clearly to play the caucuses cautiously, particularly after they clipped his campaign in 2008. But it’s been apparent for some time now that the rewards offered by winning Iowa outweigh the risks of underperforming, and that calculation has grown simpler amid the ongoing Cainwreck and Rick Perry implosion. There’s a horizon-wide hole in the race for Romney to plunge through. A credible alternative has yet  to emerge; voters are sufficiently desperate for drama that the corpse of Newt Gingrich’s campaign is beginning to stir. And after steering clear of the state for much the year, Romney has now visited Iowa twice in three weeks. At some point, the putative front-runner has to flex his muscles.