AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, Pool
SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Mitt Romney hadn't been to Iowa in two months. But Thursday he was back — and suddenly talking about winning it.
Sensing an opening, the former Massachusetts governor is ramping up his efforts here little more than 10 weeks before the state's presidential caucuses lead off the 2012 Republican nominating contests.
"I will be here again and again, campaigning here. I'd love to win Iowa. Any of us would," Romney said, answering a voter's question at a campaign event at Morningside College in Sioux City.
At his next stop, in rural Treynor, east of Council Bluffs, Romney sounded confident when he told his audience: "There's a good shot I might become the next president of the United States. It's not a sure thing, but it's a good shot."
His daylong trip through the most conservative part of the state came as polls show him at the top of the GOP field in the wake of a series of strong debate performances. His campaign is taking a more aggressive approach to Iowa in hopes that an outright victory will propel him into the New Hampshire primary and states beyond.
Until now, Romney has had a relatively low-key presence in Iowa.
He lost here in 2008 when he tried to convince voters he was a strong cultural conservative. But he couldn't sway influential evangelical conservatives — they are concentrated heavily in the western part of the state and play an important role in the GOP caucuses — to overlook their skepticism of his Mormon faith and his reversals on abortion and gay rights.
This time, Romney has been talking almost exclusively to business leaders about the economy in hopes of picking up support across the GOP's ideological spectrum. He's counting on his rivals, seen as more conservative, to divide the support of pastors, Christian home-school activists and evangelicals in general. They have not rallied around any one of his opponents as they did Mike Huckabee four years ago.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann both are making big plays for their support while others also are wooing them, including former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, businessman Herman Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Most if not all of them will attend an event in Des Moines on Saturday, hosted by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group dominated by evangelical conservatives, though Romney is sitting it out.
Still, with the Jan. 3 caucuses coming into focus, Romney has decided to dig into the still wide-open race.
Most state lawmakers remain on the sidelines, along with top GOP officials. Sen. Chuck Grassley, for instance, said Wednesday he plans not to endorse a candidate before the caucuses.
There are risks. Should the former Massachusetts governor play hard in Iowa only to lose again, he'll be weakened.
In recent weeks, Romney's staff has started growing, though it remains lean by 2008 standards, when he blanketed the state's 99 counties with staffers, spent $10 million on TV and made dozens of visits.
This year, his handful of caucus organizers has been in close touch with his past supporters and birddogged county party organizations. They are building niche support groups with small business owners and the state's thriving agribusiness sector.
He's spent most of this year campaigning elsewhere and trying to lower any expectations that he will win in Iowa. He's spent no money on advertising in the state, and he made only his third trip this year on Thursday.
It came a week after a Perry supporter called Romney's religion a cult and just days after Perry and Romney tangled over illegal immigration, with the Texas governor recalling a 5-year-old episode in which illegal immigrations had been working on Romney's lawn.
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