As Newt Rises, the Romney Campaign Remains Restrained in Iowa

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West Des Moines, Iowa

Chris Christie had barely begun his pitch for Mitt Romney when the familiar refrain cut in. “Mic check! Mic check!” shouted some two-dozen protesters, several of whom sneaked onstage behind the New Jersey governor for this campaign rally at the corporate headquarters of Kum and Go, a Des Moines-based gas and convenience-store chain. “What is this?” Christie mused after taunting the protesters who denounced he and Romney as masters of the 1%. “Occupy West Des Moines?”

At least somebody is occupying Iowa. With the state’s critical caucuses creeping up and Newt Gingrich white hot in the Hawkeye State, Romney’s campaign is still playing it cool, drawing on Christie’s skills as a surrogate on a day when a new TIME/CNN/ORC poll showed Gingrich with a 33% to 20% lead over Romney among likely caucusgoers in Iowa. “I guarantee you this,” Christie told the crowd, “if Mitt Romney wins Iowa on Jan. 3, he is going to be the next President of the United States.”

Maybe so. But polls suggest Romney’s chances of winning the caucuses are dwindling. A month after a Des Moines Register survey showed Romney locked in a tie atop the field, he has been caught flat-flooted by a surging Gingrich, who is suddenly luring voters who profess to be primarily concerned with issues in the former Massachusetts governor’s wheelhouse, including the economy and electability.

As it continues to trumpet Romney’s strength in these areas, Romney’s campaign has also sought to blunt Gingrich’s momentum by focusing on the candidates’ respective background and character. His second Iowa ad, titled “Leader,” uses archival footage of the Romney family and snippets of a debate answer citing his 25-year career at Bain and 42-year marriage to establish his “steadiness and constancy.” It is a feat of implied juxtaposition, evoking Gingrich’s scandal-scarred Washington career and checkered marital history. On Thursday, the campaign will continue stressing the contrast between the candidates, holding a press conference call on which senior advisers are expected to lambast Gingrich’s record.

Romney will make just his sixth visit to Iowa this year on Friday, ahead of the Republican debate in Des Moines on Saturday night. His campaign has been ratcheting up its outreach, holding a tele-town hall with Iowans this week, distributing direct mail touting the Obama campaign’s “obsession” with his candidacy — a vestige of the argument that Romney was inevitably going to end up facing the President — and tapping into the reservoir of support he built up in Iowa during the last election cycle, when he spent about $10 million trying to capture the caucuses.

The Romney campaign has cantilevered these efforts with the continued fight to temper expectations. Aides argue Romney is the only candidate who doesn’t need to win Iowa, and that a top three finish — for which Romney remains on course — is enough to carry him into New Hampshire, a presumptive firewall state. “It would be great to win here, but I don’t know that it’s necessary,” says David Kochel, Romney’s Iowa strategist.

But some Iowa Republicans privately wonder if the focus on soft-pedaling expectations has suppressed a real chance to deliver a knockout blow. Romney’s decision to go up on air dovetailed with his falling poll numbers, which opponents attribute to his absence in the state. “The Romney campaign has raised expectations for caucus night; anything short of a win will be a setback for his campaign,” Sue Dvorsky, chairwoman of Iowa’s Democratic Party, argued in a memo on Wednesday. “The only thing missing from Romney’s bolstered Iowa campaign is: Mitt Romney. While he’s been willing to invest money in Iowa, he has failed to invest his time meeting with Iowans and answering their tough questions about his rhetoric and his record.” The prominent Iowa social-conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats told TIME, “The only [GOP candidate] who’s really dissed Iowa is Romney. So it would be unfortunate to see him win.”

“I hope he spends more time out here,” Christie said on Wednesday, in a pitch that stressed Romney’s experience as an executive in both business and government. “He is the most qualified, best man for the job.”

And backers in Iowa buy this pitch. “He’s been successful in business, and he’s one of the few with an ability to beat Obama,” said John Strong, a 70-year-old Army veteran from West Des Moines who wore a hat with a “ROMNEY” Iowa license plate above the brim. “Republicans are searching for the candidate who can win,” said Marlon Mormann, 55, an attorney who serves as a Romney precinct organizer.

The gains Gingrich has made spurred several backers to urge the campaign to take a more aggressive tack toward the former House Speaker. “It’s all out warfare now. It’s on,” said Frank Severino, a Des Moines consultant who was one of a few dozen business people and Romney backers to receive an audience with Christie before the event, at a financial firm nearby. Severino came away convinced that Romney’s camp is ready to launch an aggressive onslaught at Gingrich as the caucuses draw closer. “He got burned last time by the church people,” Severino says, but “If he can win the caucuses, it’s all over. Done. Fini.”

But Romney’s aides, convinced Gingrich will implode on his own, are reticent to go negative on the former House Speaker — particularly since they have an unlikely ally in Ron Paul to unload on Gingrich for them. “The klieg lights are on him now,” an aide says of Gingrich. “He has always had a problem with success.” The Gingrich surge could be fleeting, as were Herman Cain’s, Michele Bachmann’s and Rick Perry’s. In the TIME/CNN/ORC poll, 55% of likely Iowa caucus goers said they haven’t made up their minds. In a rough stretch for Romney, the former Republican front-runner, that suddenly qualifies as great news.