MORNING LINE -- December 28, 2011 at 8:17 AM EDT
Romney Manages Expectations Game in Iowa
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters and poses for photographs during a rally at the Hotel Blackhawk Tuesday in Davenport, Iowa. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
Mitt Romney has worked hard all year to keep expectations for the Iowa caucuses low, making infrequent campaign visits, passing on last summer's straw poll, and spending far less money than the $10 million he invested in the state in 2008.
Given the time and money Romney soaked into the Hawkeye State four years ago, his second place finish behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee looked and felt like a loss, and it zapped his momentum heading into the New Hampshire primary, which Arizona Sen. John McCain ultimately won.
The Washington Post's Philip Rucker looks at Romney's stealth campaign in Iowa, and writes that the candidate's different approach could work in his favor this time around:
For months, Romney, the national front-runner, ran a stealth Iowa campaign designed to manage expectations -- shoring up enough support to avoid a disastrous result, but not doing so much that he would have been expected to win. But under the radar, his staff and supporters here have pursued a strategy to squeeze every vote out of a state that is seen as inhospitable to Romney.
Politico's team of Haberman, Martin and Burns, meanwhile, report that Romney's campaign is playing to win in Iowa:
Even as he tried to keep talk about his prospects in check Tuesday, a slew of public and private polling and anecdotal evidence on the ground suggests that Romney is within striking distance of a first-place finish in Iowa -- especially as Ron Paul's momentum spurt appears to have run into the reality of frontrunners' scrutiny.
Romney's team is moving to make the most of it. The candidate launched a bus tour Tuesday, and suggested on a conference call with Iowans this week that he'll be in the state for New Year's Eve. After a solid ad buy in Iowa for a month totaling more than $1.1 million, Romney's camp has upped its spending in the Quad Cities market, sources familiar with the purchase told POLITICO. His team has dropped a collection of mail pieces, both positive about Romney and negative about the perceived closest alternative -- Newt Gingrich.
Even if Romney were to come in second in next week's contest, it's hard to see how the result would cause the damage it did four years ago, in part because of the expectations game, but also because of who the winner might be this time around.
A second place finish behind current Iowa poll leader Ron Paul might actually be seen as a win for Romney, as the Libertarian congressman is considered by many to be too far outside the Republican mainstream to have a legitimate shot at becoming the party's nominee.
If none of the other GOP hopefuls are able to consolidate support among Iowa conservatives in the next six days, then Romney could be heading into New Hampshire with something he didn't have in 2008: momentum.
While Romney may be looking up at Paul in Iowa, it appears that the former Massachusetts governor still views Newt Gingrich as his biggest threat to the Republican nomination.
At a campaign stop Tuesday in Portsmouth, Romney mocked Gingrich's failure to qualify for the Virginia ballot, which an adviser to the former House speaker called an "unexpected setback" analogous to "December 1941."
"I think he compared that to Pearl Harbor," Romney said. "I think it's more like Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory," he added, referring to the classic "I Love Lucy" episode where the comedienne and a friend are overwhelmed by a conveyor belt of candies they had been tasked with wrapping.
"You've got to get it organized," Romney declared.
Gingrich, meanwhile, leveled his sharpest attacks Tuesday on Paul, slamming the Texas congressman's views on Israel, Iran and September 11.
"I think Ron Paul's views are totally outside the mainstream of virtually every decent American," Gingrich told CNN's Wolf Blitzer.
"He's got to come up with some very straight answers to get somebody to take him seriously," Gingrich added. "Would I be willing to listen to him? Sure. I think the choice of Ron Paul or Barack Obama would be a very bad choice for America."
Gingrich said he would not support Paul if he became the Republican nominee, highlighting controversial newsletters written under the Texas congressman's name that have come under fresh scrutiny in recent weeks.
"I think it's very difficult to see how you would engage in dealing with Ron Paul as a nominee," Gingrich said. "Given the newsletters, which he has not yet disowned. He would have to go a long way to explain himself and I think it would be very difficult to see today, Ron Paul as the Republican nominee."
A spokesman for the Paul campaign called Gingrich's statement a "childish outburst" caused by "frustration from his floundering campaign."
Democrats received some bad news Tuesday as Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., announced he would not run for reelection. Nelson's plans weigh heavily on the battle to control the U.S. Senate, where Democrats will now have to defend yet another open seat.
The margin of control stands at 53-47 in favor of the Democrats, but the party has 23 seats to defend, compared to 10 Republican seats.
Nelson is important because Nebraska favors Republicans generally, and an open race is a much easier target for pick-up than if the party had to run against a known incumbent Democrat.
You can watch Nelson's announcement here:
Politico's John Breshnahan has these details on the announcement:
The 70-year-old Nelson was considered one of the most endangered Democratic incumbents this cycle. GOP-affiliated outside groups have already dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into TV ads bashing Nelson, while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent over $1 million on its own ad blitz to bolster his image.
The White House and top Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Chuck Schumer of New York, had quietly mounted a pressure campaign to keep Nelson from retiring. Nelson has more than $3 million in his campaign war chest, and his approval rating solidified after falling over the past several years. Nelson can give unlimited amounts to the DSCC from his reelection fund, Democratic sources noted.
President Obama issued this statement on the news:
"I want to thank Senator Nelson for his years of service representing the people of Nebraska, first as Governor and then for more than a decade in the United States Senate. Over the course of his career, Ben's commitment to working with both Democrats and Republicans across a broad range of issues is a trait far too often overlooked in today's politics."
It isn't clear who the Democrats might run to replace Nelson, but CNN's Paul Steinhauser and Dana Bash offer this reporting:
A Senate Democratic leadership aide, speaking on condition of not being identified, told CNN that party officials are reaching out to former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey to possibly run for Nelson's seat. Kerrey, 68, is a Medal of Honor winner from the Vietnam War who, like Nelson, served as both a Democratic governor and senator.
ON THE TRAIL
All events listed in Eastern Time.
Rick Perry continues his Iowa bus tour, making stops in Urbandale at 8 a.m., Indianola at 2:30 p.m., Pella at 4:30 p.m., and Oskaloosa at 6 p.m.
Mitt Romney campaigns in Iowa, holding events in Muscatine at 8:20 a.m., Clinton at 1:20 p.m., and North Liberty at 6:40 p.m.
Rick Santorum campaigns in Iowa, stopping in Independence at 9 a.m., Dubuque at 1 p.m., and Cedar Rapids at 7:30 p.m.
Michele Bachmann continues her Iowa bus tour, making stops in Greenfield at 10 a.m., Creston at 11 a.m., Corning at 12 p.m., Bedford at 1 p.m., Mount Ayr at 2 p.m., Decatur at 3 p.m., Osceola at 4 p.m., Indianola at 5:10 p.m., Winterset at 6:15 p.m., Waukee at 7:30 p.m., and Boone at 9:15 p.m.
Newt Gingrich continues his Iowa bus tour, holding events in Mason City at 11:30 a.m., Algona at 2:30 p.m., Spencer at 5:15 p.m., and Le Mars at 8 p.m.
Ron Paul campaigns in Iowa, holding a town hall in Newton at 1 p.m., visiting GuideOne Insurance in West Des Moines in 4 p.m., and attending a rally in Des Moines at 8 p.m.
Jon Huntsman holds a town hall in Pelham, N.H., at 7 p.m.
All future events can be found on our Political Calendar:
For more political coverage, visit our politics page.
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