1 of 4
Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney talks to supporters at the Family Table restaurant during a campaign stop on Saturday.
We're running a national campaign. We'd love to win here. I don't believe we have to win here.

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.

Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, said that while the state's evangelical Christian voters have yet to get behind a single candidate, they know whom they don't want — Romney.

"The overwhelming consensus of that community is they don't want Mitt Romney to come in first," Scheffler said. Instead, they want to "at least slow it down or deny him the nomination."

So-called values voters, he said, just don't trust Romney to defend their pro-life and pro-family agenda because they don't see him as a sincere convert to their positions.

"I think a lot of those voters are saying, 'I don't know what that guy believes,"' Scheffler said. "He goes from left to right and stops talking about it."

That's a bigger problem for the Christian right than Romney's Mormon faith, Scheffler said, even though many evangelicals do not view Mormons as fellow Christians.

"I just don't think by and large, that's what's driving this. It's concern about the trust factor," he said. "I'm not going to vote for him in the caucus, but it has nothing to do with his Mormon faith."

Kochel said voters don't care about Romney's membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"I think probably there are few voters for whom that's an issue," he said, but most are more interested in Romney's business background, where he made tens of millions of dollars turning around troubled companies before coming to Utah to do the same for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

"I don't think they care what church you go to," Kochel said. "They care about what experience and abilities you have to succeed in creating jobs."

Jon Huntsman Jr., the other Mormon in the race, is set to stay in New Hampshire through the Jan. 10 primary election there. He has focused all of his campaign on winning New Hampshire, even moving his headquarters there from Florida.

Peter Spaulding, an adviser to Huntsman who served as McCain's New Hampshire state chairman in 2000 and 2008, said staying out of Iowa is a smart move.

"By him being here, I think, he gets support from some people who feel he cares about New Hampshire," Spaulding said. "It also gives him the opportunity to see several thousand more people."

Huntsman, Spaulding said, "still has a realistic shot of winning in New Hampshire." His strategy between now and Jan. 10 is "to meet every person that he can during every waking hour. It's not rocket science."

Longtime Huntsman friend Lew Cramer, head of the Utah World Trade Center, said Huntsman was optimistic during a Christmas visit to Salt Lake City that included serving meals to the homeless.

Cramer said if Huntsman is among the three top vote-getters in New Hampshire, he's on to South Carolina.

"If Gov. Huntsman doesn't for some reason finish in the top three, he's going to seriously evaluate going forward," Cramer said. "Jon Huntsman will not lose no matter what. He's made his name."

University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala predicted Huntsman will be out of the race after that state's primary.

"If he can't defeat Romney here, if he can't come awfully close and show the Romney campaign is staggering, I don't see how Huntsman goes forward," Scala said. "Once he decided it was going to be New Hampshire or bust, he was depending on a seriously weakened Romney."

And New Hampshire, he said, is Romney's to lose.

"I think it would take a serious disappointment for Romney in Iowa, plus a Gingrich victory in Iowa to tighten up things in New Hampshire," Scala said. "It's going to take something drastic."

Even a Paul victory in Iowa wouldn't dent Romney's lead in New Hampshire, he said, but that would hurt Huntsman, who is competing for many of the same independent voters as Paul.

If Romney wins Iowa, Scala said, there's little doubt New Hampshire will also go for the former Massachusetts governor.

"If that were to happen," he said, "I think he'd be well on his way to the nomination."

e-mail: [email protected] Twitter: dnewspolitics