An Opening for Romney in Iowa?

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In the weeks since Rick Perry upended the Republican presidential primary, there’s been little hard data out of Iowa. The reputable Des Moines Register hasn’t published a poll since Perry barreled into the field. The race remains in flux: Michele Bachmann’s star is falling after a quick ascent that peaked in a victory at Ames, and Perry fans may be doing a double-take after the Texan’s shaky debate performances. On Wednesday, a new poll suggested Mitt Romney may be poised to capitalize on his rivals’ struggles. The survey, released by the American Research Group, shows Romney leading the field in Iowa, garnering 21% from likely caucus-goers, ahead of Bachmann (15%, down sharply from her numbers in August) and Perry (14%), whose leap suggests he directly siphoned Bachmann supporters.

A caveat: the pollster isn’t the most reliable; Nate Silver ranked it near the bottom of the pack in 2010. But the snapshot suggests that Romney, as Iowa insiders have been hinting, may have a golden opportunity in an inchoate field. After pouring time and money into the state in 2007 only to see Mike Huckabee swoop in to win the caucus, Romney’s camp planned to build a leaner operation in the Hawkeye State this time around. But Romney still has a network of supporters to tap into. And some Iowa Republicans are urging Romney to recalibrate his strategy. “He still has a vast amount of support here, and I believe we’ll see a record turnout on the GOP side,” says Tim Albrecht, a former Romney spokesman who now serves as communications director for Iowa’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad. “Those new caucus attendees are ripe for the picking, and Romney could attract a majority with a pro-jobs, pro-growth message.”

Romney’s rivals — including Rick Santorum, who has blanketed Iowa with appeals to its social-conservative set, and Ron Paul, who’s maintained steady double-digit support — are battling for a different swath of the electorate, leaving an opening for a the former Massachusetts governor to tailor a pitch aimed at more moderate voters. While Romney’s campaign is wary of ratcheting up expectations, capturing the caucus and then cruising on his home turf in New Hampshire the following week could deal a knockout blow to Perry.

That scenario seems likelier than it did even a week ago. His chief rivals have swooned. Bachmann, the New York Times reported last week, is struggling to raise money. Keith Nahigian, the Minnesota congresswoman’s new campaign manager, released a video/PowerPoint Wednesday that frankly acknowledges Iowa is a “must-win” contest for her. “She has to win Iowa and move on from there,” he said. Perry has also faltered, his sluggish debate performances exposing vulnerabilities on issues ranging from immigration to the HPV vaccine he made mandatory for teen girls in Texas, and prompting a fresh round of calls for a conservative white knight to enter the race.

While his rivals have barnstormed the state to drum up support, Romney has paid scant attention to Iowa so far. But in a sign his campaign is beginning to test the waters, Romney’s wife Ann will headline a fundraiser at the Adel, Iowa, home of a supporter next week. He has signaled plans to spend more time in Iowa himself beginning next month. Romney has a “great opportunity here,” says Albrecht. It’s just not clear if he’ll seize it.