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Romney treads lightly in Iowa

Stays low-key, compared with ’08 campaign

Mitt Romney’s speech at the State of Iowa Historical Museum was cut short when a smoke alarm went off. Mitt Romney’s speech at the State of Iowa Historical Museum was cut short when a smoke alarm went off. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / May 28, 2011

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DES MOINES — Mitt Romney returned yesterday to the scene of his disappointing 2008 defeat and began wooing Iowa caucus-goers in a new Republican presidential campaign that features a lower-key strategy and, thus far, reduced expectations for the state.

“It’s good to be home,’’ he said to an audience of about 200 in Des Moines, part of a three-stop Iowa swing. “Ah, this isn’t exactly home, but it felt like it last time I was around.’’

Romney spent more time in Iowa than any other candidate during the 2008 race. But since his crippling second-place finish, he has visited the state fewer times than nearly all of his potential 2012 rivals, according to a tally maintained by IowaPolitics.com.

As Romney sought to reintroduce himself yesterday, all did not proceed smoothly. His highest-profile event, a scheduled hourlong appearance in Des Moines, was cut short after just 27 minutes when burning popcorn triggered a fire alarm. Guests started evacuating rows of chairs at the State of Iowa Historical Building moments after he fielded pointed queries from the moderator about his perceived lack of interest in the state, about his lack of appeal among social conservatives, and why he is formally announcing his candidacy next week in New Hampshire, not Iowa. “Uh-oh,’’ Romney said when the alarm began to blare. “I wasn’t trying to get out of tough questions, I promise.’’

Romney traced familiar highways as he traveled to Ankeny, where he sat at a desk and wielded an ear of corn while talking to the owners of a software company. Late in the afternoon he headed for Cedar Rapids, in eastern Iowa, the region of the state where he fared best in 2008, for a friendly GOP picnic.

Romney focused his remarks on economic themes, avoiding the hot-button social concerns that dominate the agenda for many of Iowa’s voters. Not once did he mention his opposition to gay marriage and abortion, issues that he struggled four years ago to reconcile with his past positions.

“When it comes to the economy and jobs for the American people, President Obama has failed, his policies did not work,’’ Romney told reporters.

Romney reaffirmed his support for ethanol subsidies, a position that puts him at odds with Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, who announced his campaign Monday in Des Moines and said he favors ending the subsidies. It is a position that could cause problems for Pawlenty in Iowa, whose agricultural industry benefits heavily from the government funding. But Pawlenty’s stance has won plaudits from budget-cutting Republicans.

As an aspiring front-runner in a chaotic GOP field, Romney is expected to compete to some degree in each of the early caucus and primary states, including Iowa and South Carolina, which are heavily influenced by evangelical Christians and staunch conservatives. His visit yesterday was proof of that. And there are other signs that he has begun paying more attention to Iowa. He has appointed a few state campaign operatives, and his brother, Scott, has called at least one mainstream Republican asking for support.

But it is nothing like the operation he had four years ago. By this point in 2007, Romney had flooded the airwaves statewide with early TV ads, inundated voters with campaign fliers and DVDs, and hired a staff of 16. Romney’s son Josh had bought a big RV (christened the “Mitt Mobile’’) and was outlining plans to visit all of Iowa’s 99 counties. He had established a state headquarters in Urbandale that featured two countdowns on the wall, one to the projected date of the caucuses and another showing the date of the state’s August straw poll, a high-profile test vote before the caucus. Yesterday, Romney would not say if he even plans to compete in this year’s straw poll (although he vowed to compete in the caucus).

Romney, a Mormon, was hurt in Iowa in 2008 by the winner in the state, Mike Huckabee, a pastor who drew support from Christians who were uncomfortable with Romney’s faith.

Since the 2008 election, Romney has been in Iowa for a grand total of three days, according to IowaPolitics.com. That is less than Rick Santorum (21 days), Pawlenty (21 days), Newt Gingrich (15), Ron Paul (9), Michele Bachmann (9), Herman Cain (8), and Sarah Palin (4). Political specialists say he is trying to become a surprise winner rather than a loser who did not live up to expectations.

“Romney’s doing a good job of lowering his expectations,’’ said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

Romney flew into Iowa on a United Airlines commercial flight yesterday and contrasted his last campaign with this one.

“Last time around we had a big announcement, a big stage in Michigan, with cars behind me, flags and so forth,’’ he said. “Then we got on a private jet that we rented and flew around from state to state to state — very expensive.

“These are lean times for a lot of Americans, and if you want to run a smart campaign I think you need to be lean as well,’’ he added. “So I’m not going to be flying all over the country and making a big folderol.’’

After his hourlong address was cut in half by the fire alarm, Romney went to the street, where supporters crowded around him.

“He’s smart, he’s intelligent, he’s equipped and prepared,’’ said Ruth Hiddleson, a 74-year-old retired teacher from West Des Moines. “If he gets out here enough, he’ll do well because he’s talking about the economy.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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