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Dec. 29 (Bloomberg) -- A confident Mitt Romney barnstormed across Iowa yesterday, packing rooms with enthusiastic backers of his Republican presidential bid amid signs of his strength in a state he had been reluctant to aggressively contest.
With a new poll showing the former Massachusetts governor leading his party’s pack in Iowa, his campaign officials see an opening for a victory in its Jan. 3 caucuses that could allow him to quickly clinch the nomination.
After almost a year of waging a largely stealth campaign in the state, they’ve ramped up their efforts as the caucuses approach. A skeletal staff has been expanded with fresh recruits dispatched from headquarters in Boston. Romney and his aides are blitzing Iowa with campaign events and advertising in an aggressive effort to increase his chances of a strong finish.
As he kicked off a three-day bus tour across the eastern part of the state yesterday, Romney fed off the positive receptions he received.
“What an audience! What a crowd!” Romney told several hundred voters gathered at a plastics factory in North Liberty. “This is amazing. The enthusiasm, the energy. This is fabulous.”
Earlier in the day, Romney shied away from offering predictions, though he sounded upbeat about his prospects in comments to reporters in Clinton, Iowa.
‘Feel Pretty Good’
“I can’t possibly allow myself to think in such optimistic terms,” he said of his chances of wrapping up the Republican race in its early stages. “I can tell you, if the people here in Clinton are any example, or any indication, of what’s going to happen in the process, I feel pretty good.”
Romney backers say a caucus win followed by victory in the Jan. 10 primary in New Hampshire, where Romney has held a commanding lead in polls, would make it difficult for another candidate to gain the momentum to derail him.
“If you’ve lost to Mitt in Iowa and you’ve lost to Mitt in New Hampshire, what’s your case in South Carolina, what’s your case in Michigan, what’s your case in Florida?” asked U.S. Representative Aaron Schock, a Romney supporter referring to primaries that follow the New Hampshire vote. Schock, of Illinois, spent the day campaigning with Romney.
The intensified campaign aims to amplify Romney’s closing argument to Iowa voters that he’s the most electable Republican against President Barack Obama.
That message seems to be resonating: A CNN/Time/ORC International poll on the Republican race released yesterday showed Romney ahead in Iowa, with 25 percent. He was followed by Texas Representative Ron Paul with 22 percent and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, with 16 percent.
Newt Gingrich, after weathering televised attacks from opponents within his party, lost significant support in the poll of likely caucus-goers, falling to 14 percent in the survey that was conducted Dec. 21-27 and has an error margin of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
A month ago, Gingrich had 33 percent support in a similar poll, topping Romney’s 20 percent. Santorum has surged from 5 percent in that Nov. 29-Dec. 6 poll.
R.C. Hammond, Gingrich’s campaign spokesman, interpreted the poll as a sign that Romney -- who in his failed 2008 nomination bid showered attention on Iowa -- still has a problem attracting majority support.
The survey “shows that Mitt Romney has a ceiling and he spends $13 million since 2007 in the state of Iowa and he can’t break it,” Hammond said.
Other recent Iowa polls have shown Paul leading. He drew about 120 people to a midday event at the Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa. It was his first appearance in the state since leaving the campaign trail in observance of Christmas.
“It does look like there are more cameras than there used to be,” Paul said, noting a large media contingent covering him. “All of a sudden people are tired of the wars. They’re tired of this economy. They’re tired of the Federal Reserve. They’re tired of Congress spending a lot of money. And they are looking for some change.”
Santorum, who has made a point of visiting all of Iowa’s 99 counties, said his fundraising has picked up in recent days along with his support. “We’ve always felt like we could trust the people of Iowa,” he said in an interview on CNN.
Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker, sought to regain ground as he campaigned in northern Iowa.
He made light of Romney’s comment on Dec. 27 that compared the failure of Gingrich’s campaign to qualify for the Virginia primary ballot to comedienne Lucille Ball’s inept handing of chocolates on an assembly line in a famed television skit.
“I just have to say, here I am in the chocolate factory,” Gingrich said during a stop at a chocolate shop in Algona, Iowa. “And now that I had the courage to come to the chocolate factory, I hope Governor Romney will have the courage to debate me one-on-one.”
Gingrich repeatedly has sought such a forum with Romney. In a CNN interview yesterday, Romney said: “If he and I end up being the two finalists, we’ll wind up with that opportunity.”
Romney’s loss to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in the 2008 Iowa caucuses four years ago dealt a crushing political blow to his previous presidential bid, and he and his strategists spent much of this campaign trying to keep expectations low in the state.
They declined to compete in the Iowa Straw Poll, a carnival-like August event viewed as an early test of candidate strength. He skipped an annual state Republican fundraising dinner in early November, and was absent from a forum later in the month sponsored by a coalition of Iowa groups opposed to abortion rights and same-sex marriage -- social issues that hurt him four years ago.
Yet quietly, Romney’s campaign focused on maintaining its network of state volunteers and getting organized. Now, with Gingrich sagging in the polls and the evangelical voters who backed Huckabee splintered in the current contest, Romney and his aides see an opportunity to strike.
A fleet of high-profile Romney backers, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Senator John Thune of South Dakota plan to travel to Iowa to help make Romney’s case to voters. The campaign is also airing a new television ad touting his record as a “conservative businessman,” as an outside group staffed by former Romney aides pays for spots attacking his rivals.
Aides have left open the possibility that Romney will spend caucus night in the state, a sign that they feel increasingly optimistic about his chances.
Crowds of voters waited for Romney at every stop of his bus tour yesterday. In Muscatine, hundreds of voters had gathered before sunrise for an early-morning stop he made at a local cafe. So many people showed up at a deli in Clinton that aides expanded the event to an Italian restaurant across the street.
“What a crowd, what a welcome,” Romney told the audience crowded into the restaurant. “This response comes as a bit of a surprise.”
The barrage of political ads on Iowa televisions includes a spot financed by an independent group calling itself “Sarah Palin’s Iowa Earthquake” that urges Republicans to back the former Alaska governor at the caucuses. The ad says it isn’t authorized by Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee who announced in October she wouldn’t seek the White House, or her political action committee.
Huntsman’s Town Hall
The one Republican contender who isn’t competing in Iowa, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., held a town hall meeting in Pelham, New Hampshire, last night -- his 129th public event in the state, he told a crowd of about 100 people.
Asked by reporters if he remained confident in his decision to focus on the first primary state, he said: “It’s our strategy. I may as well own it.” He added: “A day or two after Iowa, their results will be meaningless for the most part and everybody will then look here to New Hampshire.”
A CNN/Time/ORC International poll released yesterday of registered New Hampshire voters likely to vote in the Republican contest showed Romney with 44 percent, followed by Paul, 17 percent, Gingrich, 16 percent, and Huntsman, 9 percent. The survey’s error margin was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
--With assistance from Tim Higgins in Spencer, Iowa, Kate Andersen Brower in Pelham, New Hampshire, and Kristen Jensen and Jonathan Salant in Washington. Editors: Don Frederick, Paul Tighe
To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in North Liberty, Iowa at email@example.com; John McCormick in Newton, Iowa, at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva in Washington at email@example.com