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Romney hopes for an Iowa surprise

Seeks to slow Gingrich’s rise

Joanie Scotter (first woman, left) greeted GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney during a town hall event yesterday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Joanie Scotter (first woman, left) greeted GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney during a town hall event yesterday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Brendan Hoffman for The Boston Globe)
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / December 10, 2011
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Four years ago, Mitt Romney volunteers would huddle twice a week - often inside a Mormon-owned chiropractic office here - and place thousands of calls on behalf of their candidate. Their yards were filled with Romney signs, their cars sported his bumper stickers, and some 800 giant signs were placed on barns across the region.

During this campaign, the effort is far more subtle. Drive along the roads here, and there are few signs of Romney support. The phone banks are more informal, with individuals calling from inside their homes. Romney himself has visited far less often, instead relying on telephone town halls, where the candidate can talk with Iowans without having to physically be in the state.

But while Romney has had a far less visible strategy, his aides and supporters say, he has laid the groundwork for a potential surprise next month because they believe they are far more organized than other campaigns. They are forecasting a ramp-up in activity during the final weeks, but also are trying to cautiously moderate expectations so their campaign is not derailed by a low finish.

“It’s a very, very different campaign,’’ said Renee Schulte, a state representative from Cedar Rapids who is Romney’s state cochair but still keeps her old Romney yard sign in her home, preserving it from the elements and not wanting to offend her neighbors.

“In 2008, people got tired of hearing from us. They wouldn’t come to our events. Now, they say, ‘When’s he coming again?’ ’’ she said. “Because he doesn’t come as often, people just flock to see him.’’

Romney came here yesterday, hosting a town hall inside an animal feed manufacturing plant filled with supporters excited to see him, his wife, Ann, and his son Josh, who drove to all 99 Iowa counties four years ago in a Winnebago dubbed the “Mitt-mobile.’’

“As we get closer to the caucus period you’re going to see more of me, more of my family, more of our ads,’’ Romney told reporters when asked whether he regretted not spending more time in Iowa.

His operation is evident in places like Linn County here, which is anchored by Cedar Rapids. Romney won the county four years ago, and it is part of a section of eastern Iowa where he will need to draw big numbers to perform well at the Jan. 3 caucuses.

Aside from Representative Ron Paul of Texas, Romney is the only candidate in the race who has run for president before. His experience has shown in the debates and in his fund-raising network, but what can go overlooked are the benefits of the nuts and bolts of organizing. Inside Shulte’s home office, which is adorned with Romney memorabilia, she boots up her computer, opens a spreadsheet, and displays the names of people they contacted four years ago - including many of the 2,407 people who helped Romney win the county four years ago.

Spreadsheets like it are now being used to call voters across the state and make sure they still support Romney.

“Romney always said to us, if the state was in play, we’d play,’’ Shulte said. “We knew we were going to go slow and steady, and remain a positive presence. But we did not know when the trigger would be pulled.’’

By most indications, the trigger has been pulled, and the Romney campaign is picking up activity significantly. He and his supporters are now making Iowa a key component in trying to stymie the rise in support for former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

A super-PAC supporting Romney recently took out $3.1 million in television advertisements in Iowa, by far the largest ad buy to date. Ann and Josh Romney are planning to hold a rally in Des Moines today. Ann will be back next week, hosting a fund-raiser in Cedar Rapids.

In some ways, Romney is testing whether the organizational strength that he built four years ago will be enough to surpass the passion that other candidates stir in their supporters.

“The underperforming strategy in Iowa was smart, because I think they knew there was a lot of latent support,’’ said Tim Palmer, who is planning to go to his local caucus precinct Jan. 3 and speak on behalf of Romney. “I don’t have a sign in my yard like I did last time, but I’m still supporting him. And I think there’s a lot of people like me out there.’’

Palmer - who was one of Romney’s top staffers in Linn County four years ago, in one case picking the candidate up from the airport and taking him for local barbeque - said Romney has quietly kept tabs on his Iowa supporters.

Romney got 29,949 votes from Iowa caucus-goers in 2008, a year when Christian conservatives made up six out of 10 voters and largely rallied around former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. This time, that vote appears split among several candidates, potentially giving Romney an opening if he is able to sustain the support he received four years ago.

The campaign’s statewide headquarters in an old Blockbuster video store in Des Moines is sparse. There are a few tables set up for phone banks, and midday on a recent weekday there were about four aides sitting at desks, eating local barbecue for lunch. On the wall were several homemade Romney signs, along with a dry erase board counting down the days until the caucus.

Romney has no campaign headquarters in eastern Iowa, and there seem to be no plans to open one. Hang Decker, a 64-year-old woman originally from Vietnam who supported John McCain in the 2008 caucuses, hosts monthly “lunch bunch’’ meetings at her home for Romney supporters. She has also has been going door-to-door with her husband, but not as part of any activity coordinated with the campaign.

One of the most sought-after volunteers in Iowa, Joni Scotter, has been a passionate Romney fan. She has boxes of index cards - marked with voters’ names, personal tidbits about them, and which candidates they’re supporting - and is planning to soon start making calls from her home.

“I think we’re working smarter, not harder,’’ said Karen Zmoos, whose family opened up their chiropractor’s office in 2008 for phone bank gatherings. “In 2008, we worked much harder, and I don’t know if that was smart.’’

But there are signs that some of Romney’s support could be eroding, as former volunteers and former supporters leave for other candidates, or are so far unconvinced by Romney. Secretary of State Matt Schultz - who supported Romney four years ago, shares Romney’s Mormon faith, and is the only statewide elected official to endorse this year - announced last night that he was backing former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.

One of Romney’s former staffers has soured on him and is now chairing the Linn County operation for Governor Rick Perry of Texas.

“I haven’t seen Romney T-shirts, I haven’t seen Romney yard signs, nothing,’’ said Kathy Potts, who attended events last week with Perry’s wife, Anita. “They may be doing a lot, but I don’t know how effective it is. . . . Every other day I’m getting something from some candidate. But not from Mitt.’’

And even though the Romney campaign has been doing behind-the-scenes work, some supporters are eager for more of the public attention that Iowans have come to expect from candidates.

“They’re running out of time, but they need to work harder in Iowa,’’ said Jim Sattler, a Cedar Rapids home builder who caucused for Romney four years ago and plans to do the same this year. “Their campaign needs a kick in the [rear end], to be honest.’’

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

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