WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is preparing for a higher profile in Iowa, where he possibly could land a knockout punch if two top rivals don't quickly fix their campaign problems and back-of-the-pack contenders such as Newt Gingrich don't move quickly to energize voters.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, recently recorded a TV campaign ad at a sheet-metal plant in Dubuque, in eastern Iowa. It's not shocking that he would prepare such ads. But every Romney step in Iowa intrigues GOP activists.
After a crushingly disappointing loss there in 2008, he sharply lowered expectations in Iowa, whose caucus is less than two months away. If Romney airs ads soon and heavily in the state, it could signal a new strategy built on calculations that his weakened opponents handed him too tempting an opportunity.
But Romney retains the option of doing little in Iowa and keeping his main hopes pinned on New Hampshire. Its primary is Jan. 10, one week after the Iowa caucus.
While Romney spoke to voters in Michigan on Thursday, once-surging rivals Rick Perry and Herman Cain scrambled to control serious political damage. Party insiders speculated on whether Gingrich, a former House speaker, could emerge as the newest hope for conservative activists who question Romney's commitment to their priorities.
Gingrich, however, trails Romney and others in organizing Iowa and elsewhere, and will have to prove that his long and sometimes troubled political history can withstand closer scrutiny.
Gingrich said Friday that he has remained in contention because he is running "probably the most substantive campaign in modern history" at a time when voters are worried about problems like the economy and the deficit.
"People are looking for a serious potential president because they see the issues as being so very serious to their own lives," he said on CBS' "Early Show."
Perry, the Texas governor, rearranged his schedule Thursday to try to mitigate a disastrous debate moment in which he could not remember the third of three federal agencies he would abolish. Perry canceled a Tennessee fundraiser to appear on several TV networks and David Letterman's "Late Show," pledging to stay in the race.
He repeatedly said he "stepped in it" at the Wednesday night debate but declared in an interview, "This ain't a day for quitting nothing."
Perry's campaign sent a fundraising letter noting that all humans make mistakes. It started a website contest that asks: "What part of the federal government would you like to forget about the most?"
His supporters are watching carefully for voters' reactions.
"It was very embarrassing to Rick Perry and to others who certainly supported him, and I'm sure that many of his Republican opponents are rejoicing," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who has endorsed Perry. "Right now, he's joking around about it, and it seems to be favorably received from a lot of people I've heard from."
For Cain, the former Godfather's Pizza executive, it was another day of trying to get beyond sexual harassment accusations leveled against him a decade ago and came to light 11 days ago. The allegations were made by four women, two of whom received cash settlements from a restaurant trade association Cain once headed.
Facing voters for the first time since the allegations emerged, Cain met with tea party groups in Michigan. He hopes such friendly settings can help him retain the lofty perch he enjoyed in GOP polls two weeks ago.
"How you beat Obama? Beat him with a Cain!" he told one supporter at a crowded diner in Ypsilanti, near Detroit. The crowd cheered.
Cain is airing his first TV ad in Iowa. And he has hired a new lawyer, who is warning women they will be aggressively scrutinized for any charges made against the candidate.
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