Mitt Romney’s Fierce General Election Strategy at Work in Iowa

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Danny Wilcox Frazier / Redux for TIME

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addressed supporters in Ames, Iowa Dec. 29, 2011 just days before the January 3 Iowa caucuses.

Des Moines, Iowa

For Mitt Romney’s campaign, there’s no question whom this election is really about. “Let’s be real clear, Barack Obama came out to Iowa and he talked about hope and change,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told a crowd of hundreds who gathered Friday morning to hear Romney speak outside a grocery store in West Des Moines. “After three years, we are hopeless and changeless.” A moment later, in a light winter rain, Romney took the microphone and pointed to a handmade sign in the crowd. “In Obama We Trusted, Now Our Economy Is Busted,” it read. “You got it right, brother,” the candidate said. “Boy, you put that together.”

Meanwhile, in Romney’s Boston headquarters, strategists had cued up a press release pointing to an interview Obama had done almost four years ago to the day. “I don’t want to wake up four years from now and find out we’ve been having the same arguments with the same lack of results,” Obama had said on NBC’s Meet the Press on December 30, 2007. These flashbacks are a staple of the Romney campaign’s messaging. “I think you are going to see candidate Obama running against President Obama over and over again,” said a senior Romney adviser. “And you know what candidate Obama would do to President Obama.”

With days to go before the first caucus in the nation, Mitt Romney is executing his general election strategy, comparing himself to the current President, not the Republican field. He wants voters to know: He’s fit and ready to take on Barack Obama.

It’s an argument that seems to be having an effect as Iowans enter the final days before Tuesday’s caucus. Interviews with dozens of voters over three days of travel with Romney, many of whom spoke of Romney largely in terms of his electability. “He does come across as confident,” said Kathryn Johnson, a Republican from Des Moines who turned out for a Romney event. “He’s ready.”

The same topic of electability was on voters’ minds in Ames, Mason City and Cedar Falls. “A 300 pound jockey on Sea Biscuit isn’t going to win,” said one Romney supporter, who had previously supported Michele Bachmann. But Romney’s crowds, while demonstrating his strength, also contained many examples of his continued weakness. In Des Moines, for example, Kathryn Johnson, the same voter who said she looked forward to voting for Romney in a general election, said she would likely caucus for Rick Santorum on Tuesday, saying she was going with her heart.

For Romney’s strategists, such voters are not a great concern. While Romney campaigned in 2008 as if every vote mattered, the Romney team this time is confident that the weak field, and the issue of electability, will ensure their victory, even if Romney fails to stir passions. Where Romney was once forced to battle over his own political identity, he is now entirely focused on Barack Obama’s. “Part of the leadership skill is to know what to focus on and what to ignore,” said another Romney strategist. “Four years ago, he tried to focus on too many things.”

This year, Romney is focusing on the one thing Republicans want most–providing an end to the Obama presidency.

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