Mitt Romney's top Iowa adviser: 'I don't believe we have to win here'

Published: Sunday, Jan. 1 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney talks to supporters at the Family Table restaurant during a campaign stop on Saturday.

Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa — Four years ago, Mitt Romney's presidential campaign staff in Iowa included more than 50 paid staffers and enough volunteers to fill some 22,000 square feet of suburban office space.

Yet he managed only a disappointing second-place finish in the traditional start to the presidential race, the first of several significant losses that cost him the 2008 GOP nomination.

But in his second bid for the White House, the former Utah Olympic leader is taking a very different approach to Iowa's GOP caucus vote Tuesday.

Now, Romney has just five paid employees and a few dozen volunteers working out of a former video rental storefront in Des Moines. Until a few weeks ago, he hadn't spent much time in the state.

His campaign clearly appears to be scaling back expectations for a big win in Iowa, where every GOP presidential candidate except former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is fighting to rise above a crowded field.

"We're running a national campaign," Dave Kochel, Romney's top adviser in Iowa, told the Deseret News. "We'd love to win here. I don't believe we have to win here."

Iowa's caucus vote Tuesday is, in effect, only a preference poll. Iowa's Republicans won't actually elect delegates to the party's national convention until they hold their state convention in the spring.

Kochel said Romney only has to be "successful" in some of the early vote states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada. In 2008, the only one of those states where Romney claimed victory was Nevada.

Kochel said he wants Romney to best the Republican Party's eventual 2008 nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain's, fourth-place finish in Iowa. McCain skipped the Iowa caucuses to campaign in New Hampshire.

"I'd like to do better than that. I don't know what we have to do in Iowa. I know we'd like to finish strong," Kochel said, noting McCain's 2008 staff in Iowa was bigger than Romney's current campaign operation there.

He insisted Romney's strategy all along has been to wait until the final weeks before the caucus to focus on Iowa. Romney didn't participate in the state's summertime straw poll and, until a three-day bus tour last week, had only made seven visits to the state.

"We were already better known," Kochel said. "We were focused on building a national organization that could pursue the nomination through the long haul. We were always planning on competing" in Iowa.

In the final days of the race, Romney is staying put in Iowa, holding town hall meetings and grass-roots rallies across the state with a few events scheduled to specifically discuss jobs and the economy.

Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa political science professor and Republican activist, said Romney appears to be setting himself up to be able to say he wasn't really running to win if he loses in Iowa.

"Romney has been sort of trying to have it both ways. Romney wants to do well in Iowa, but he doesn't want to raise expectations," Hagle said. "He can say he didn't campaign."

Long seen as the front-runner nationally, Romney faces serious competition in Iowa from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who have both held leads there.

Among the other candidates in the race, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is seemingly successful in courting support from the same social conservative network that helped former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee beat Romney in 2008.

"Santorum has the best chance" of making a surprise showing in the caucus vote, Hagle said, over the other now second-tier candidates who also hold appeal to those same conservatives, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

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