DES MOINES, Iowa — Make no mistake, Mitt Romney is competing in Iowa.
It's not the $10 million campaign he waged for the state's presidential caucuses four years ago. But the former Massachusetts governor, who has kept a low public profile here since his 2008 loss, is quietly ramping up his efforts in hopes that a surprise top-three finish will give him a boost heading into the follow-up New Hampshire primary.
"He's campaigning here. And he's running the campaign more skillfully than four years ago," said Joni Scotter, a 2008 Romney supporter who has heard from Romney several times this year.
With Romney's position in the Republican race growing stronger, his team senses a possible opening for a top-three showing in January's caucuses. Evangelicals who hold great sway in the caucuses — and are skeptical of the New Englander — haven't rallied around any one candidate and could divide their support among rivals viewed as more culturally conservative than he is.
The hope is that Romney's emphasis on jobs will resonate in a state where the economy tops voters' concerns and Republicans showed a willingness to embrace a more business-focused nominee when they nominated Gov. Terry Branstad last year.
Romney's stepped-up effort in the state comes as his chief rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, struggles to right his campaign following a rocky few weeks. The evangelical governor with a record of job creation is a better fit for Iowans and could threaten Romney's march to the nomination if he wins the caucuses. And with $15 million in the bank, Perry has enough money to launch a major effort to try to bury Romney in Iowa.
In a sign of Romney's increased attention to the state, he plans to return next week to campaign in conservative western Iowa. The visit comes two weeks after his wife, Ann, courted Iowans over several days.
He's also has modestly boosted his staff in the state — from two to four — and is making fresh appeals to business leaders while staying in regular touch with key supporters and volunteers from his 2008 campaign. He plans a conference call with thousands of Iowa GOP activists in the coming weeks; it will be his third such call since June. And for months now, he has dispatched a staffer to represent him at every local GOP function in Iowa's 99 counties. He also is likely to participate in a November forum here hosted by Branstad and Mary Andringa, chairwoman of the National Association of Manufacturers.
His aides insist that spending more time in Iowa isn't a shift from Romney's arm's-length approach thus far, and they deny that it's a response to Perry.
And despite giving more attention to Iowa, Romney's focus remains on New Hampshire, where he leads by a healthy margin in polls.
That state is more of a natural fit for Romney, who is from neighboring Massachusetts and has a vacation home on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesauke. New Hampshire also allows independents to vote in their primary, and Republicans there are far less tied to the evangelical movement than Iowa caucus goers, many of whom viewed Romney skeptically last time because of his reversals on social issues and his Mormon faith.
Still, advisers acknowledge that this fall will feature a more robust effort in Iowa than there's been all year.
"You'll see the campaign continue to engage and compete in Iowa going forward," said Romney's senior Iowa adviser, David Kochel, who constructed Romney's vast 2008 Iowa strategy and its smaller-scale 2012 version. "We're reconnecting with our volunteers and supporters. We've got staff working on the ground and we want to do well in the Iowa caucuses."
The effort is aimed at setting — then beating — expectations to generate momentum in a place few expected him to compete.
It's also the next phase in a gradual and strategic increase in intensity, but one aimed at keeping campaign costs low while casting Romney as the strongest economy-focused candidate in the field.
It appears to be working.
Romney has ranked at or near the top of surveys of Iowa Republicans since June, while Perry, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and businessman Herman Cain have all taken their turn alongside him as a leading, more socially conservative alternative.
But there are risks.
Romney aides want to avoid a thumping by Perry, who has challenged Romney most aggressively as the field's leading economic conservative.
George W. Bush's 2000 victory in Iowa, with 41 percent of the vote, was seen as crushing and helped him survive losing the New Hampshire primary to John McCain.
Perry is struggling in Iowa after surging when he got into the race in August.
Since then, he's had to fend off attacks on parts of his record where he has deviated from conservative orthodoxy.
Compared with Romney, he's arguably a better fit for the state. He has been reaching out to fellow evangelicals, economic conservatives and agricultural-focused caucus goers — seen by some as keys to building a coalition similar to Bush's.
A second-place finish for Romney behind Bachmann, who also identifies with the evangelical conservative movement, would hurt Romney little. He could still enter New Hampshire as the leading economic conservative and hurt Perry.
An Iowa victory, which aides downplay, could vault Romney into New Hampshire — and, perhaps, beyond.
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