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.
Perry's and Cain's woes are strengthening Romney's position, but he's hardly home free. Many conservatives still resent his past support of legalized abortion and gay rights and his requirement that all Massachusetts residents obtain health insurance.
But they have failed to coalesce around a single alternative. Rep. Michele Bachmann briefly topped the polls last summer, followed by Perry and then Cain.
Some Iowa Republicans hope former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who emphasizes social conservative issues such as abortion and gay rights, can make a move. He has visited all 99 Iowa counties and aired radio commercials.
Other party insiders feel the person best poised to rise is Gingrich, the fiery Georgian who led the GOP's 1994 takeover of the House after 40 years in the minority. He eventually lost his leadership post and left the House after clashing with then-President Bill Clinton over taxes and an unpopular government showdown.
Gingrich is adding staff in important states, opening new offices this week and raising more money than he has in months.
With Romney widely seen as the front-runner in New Hampshire, a rival must do well in Iowa to surpass him. Gingrich is popular with many Iowa Republicans, and he drew good reviews for his speech at a large dinner in Des Moines last week.
But he has little structure in place for the organizationally intensive caucuses, which require people to show up for gatherings on a midwinter night. Gingrich has not done much of the retail-level campaigning seen by past successful caucus candidates. His schedule in the next 10 days shows him visiting the state to promote a movie he produced with his wife and participate in a multicandidate event aimed at social conservative activists.
Romney has made only four public visits to Iowa this year. But a small core of advisers and staff keeps in close touch with key elements of the Iowa network he assembled in 2007.
Bachmann had a bumpy day Thursday. About 30 Occupy Wall Street protesters loudly interrupted her foreign policy speech in Mount Pleasant, S.C., saying she was dividing the nation. Bachmann left the stage but returned and finished her speech after the protesters departed.
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt and Kathy Barks Hoffman in Michigan, Shannon McCaffrey in Atlanta, Bruce Smith in South Carolina and Philip Elliott, Laurie Kellman and Steve Peoples in Washington contributed to this report. Beaumont reported from Iowa.