Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney has decided to make a play for the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses after all. But he has decided to do it without seeking the support of social conservatives, traditionally an important faction in the race, The Hill
In 2008, social conservatives helped propel Mike Huckabee to victory in Iowa over Romney. And that defeat sent the former Massachusetts governor’s candidacy into a death spiral.
But this time around, the calculus is different. In 2008, Huckabee was the lone viable conservative candidate, fighting moderates Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Romney. Moderate voters split their support among the three, ensuring victory for Huckabee.
But in 2012, Romney will be the lone moderate, facing conservatives Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. So this time it could be conservative voters splitting their support among numerous candidates, handing the election to Romney.
“I think the parallel here is 1980,” David Yepsen, who covered eight presidential races for The Des Moines Register, told The Hill. “In 1980, the Republican field was chopped up among a lot of different conservatives, including [Ronald] Reagan. And George H.W. Bush, as a more moderate candidate, won with a plurality. I think Romney could win with a plurality.”
Republican heavyweights see a path to victory for Romney. Social conservatives “are a big factor, but it’s only one portion of the votes,” Craig Robinson, former political director of the Iowa Republican Party, told The Hill. “Mitt Romney is not competing with Rick Santorum for one single vote. Really, he’s not. Romney is much more of a business-type Republican.”
Veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who ran Huckabee’s 2008 campaign and was Michele Bachmann’s campaign manager until recently, noted to The Hill that Romney “got 30,000 votes [in Iowa] four years ago. Now, as it happens, Huckabee got 40,000. But there is still a lot of support for someone like Romney, a lot of moderate support.”
Despite the fact that Romney has just begun to pay attention to Iowa, he still has some strength on the ground from 2008. In addition, he has opened a 6,000-square-foot headquarters in Des Moines, is adding volunteers, and is beginning an ad campaign. None of his competitors has built much of a campaign structure in the state yet.
“I’d rather have Romney’s organization than Newt Gingrich’s operation or even Rick Perry’s,” Robinson said. “The unwillingness of the competition to organize here has given Romney his opportunity. He should be behind the eight ball here, but Gingrich is just beginning to staff up.”
If Romney is able to score a win in Iowa, it could be huge for his campaign. In that case, “I think he starts to roll this thing up,” Yepsen said. “He has momentum, media attention, money. If he wins here, money starts to dry up for the other candidates.”
One thing is for sure: If Romney wins in Iowa, it won’t be with the help of social conservatives. Big-time activist Bob Vander Plaats was upset with Romney’s failure to show up at last weekend’s Family Leader conservative conference, which six of the other candidates attended.
“Romney was the only one who stiffed us,” Vander Plaats told reporters. “I think that’s gone with his persona and how he’s treating Iowa.”
Steve Deace, an Iowa radio talk show host, says social conservatives are united against Romney. “I would say ‘resistance’ is too mild a word. ‘Anathema’ might be more like it,” he told The Hill.
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