DES MOINES – Updated, 5:31 p.m. Mitt Romney returned yesterday to the state that delivered to him a disappointing defeat in 2008, and once again began trying to woo Iowa caucus-goers for his nascent presidential campaign.
“It’s good to be home,” he said to an audience of about 200 here. “Ah, this isn’t exactly home, but it felt like it last time I was around.”
But his first high-profile event in the state – held at the State Historical Building, with about 200 people sitting on fold-out chairs eager to hear from the former Massachusetts governor -- was cut short by burning popcorn that triggered a fire alarm and an evacuation.
The alarm came 27 minutes into an hour-long address – and after Romney answered a series of pointed questions from a moderator, about his perceived lack of interest in the state, about whether he can win over social conservatives, and why he’s formally announcing his presidential campaign next week in New Hampshire – and not Iowa.
“Uh, oh,” Romney said when the alarm began to blare and he suggested everyone begin to leave the building. “I wasn’t trying to get out of tough questions, I promise.”
Earlier in the day, Romney went to Ankeny, Iowa, where he wielded an ear of corn and talked to the owners of an agriculture software company. Late in the afternoon, he headed to Cedar Rapids – in eastern Iowa, where Romney fared best in 2008 -- for a GOP picnic.
Throughout the day yesterday Romney was focused on economic themes, avoiding the hot-button social issues that dominate the agenda for many of Iowa's caucus-goers. Not once did he mention his opposition to gay marriage and abortion – two issues that he struggled four years ago to reconcile with some of his past positions.
“I want to win that final race and say to Mr. Obama, ‘You’re a nice guy, we like you, you have a lovely family, and you’ve done your best,” Romney said. “But frankly, it’s time for somebody who understands how this country works, and I’d like to be that person.”
Romney also reaffirmed his support for ethanol subsidies, a position that puts him at odds with at least one of his rivals. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who announced his campaign Monday in the same Iowa Historical Building where Romney spoke, used the announcement to say he favored ending the subsidies. It’s a position that could cause problems in Iowa, whose agricultural industry benefits heavily from the government funding, but also has won plaudits from budget-cutting Republicans.
As an aspiring front runner in a chaotic GOP field, Romney has to be seen as willing to compete in each of the early states, including Iowa and South Carolina, which are heavily influenced by evangelical Christians and staunch conservatives.
Romney advisers have tried to downplay his chances in Iowa so far, but Mike Huckabee's decision this month not to run has created an opening in the state. Several candidates are expected to compete for the votes of religious conservatives, which could pave the way for a more economic-focused candidate like Romney.
His visit today was demonstrated that he will not skip Iowa -- as some had predicted -- and that he has started picking up his activity, if only subtly. Romney’s brother, Scott, has called at least one mainstream Republican to ask for support for Romney, and Romney himself has started calling to recruit some campaign aides in Iowa.
Romney has built a small group of Iowa staffers, 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, which featured two countdowns on the wall, one to the projected date of the caucuses and another showing the date of the Straw Poll.
None of that exists now, and Romney was coy about whether he would compete in the Straw Poll again this year – even as he said he would compete in the caucuses.
“I’m fully committed to Iowa and to the process,” he told reporters. “But as to the tactics of a campaign, that’s something which we’ll leave to the future.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.