Steve Chapman
DAVENPORT, Iowa -- As a crowd of more than 100 waits patiently for Mitt Romney's late arrival, the sound system blares country singer Alan Jackson: "You must be the dream I've been dreamin' of/Oh, what a feelin', it must be love." That selection suggests it's Romney who is dreaming.

He's been running for president off and on since 2007, but he has yet to persuade most Republicans that he's their fondest desire. Last time around, he campaigned extensively in Iowa, only to lose in the caucuses to Mike Huckabee. This time, Romney is campaigning sparingly here, apparently to minimize any damage if he loses again.

Losing looks like a serious possibility. In the latest We Ask America poll of likely Republican caucus-goers, Romney was running third with just 15 percent, behind Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich. Yes, Newt Gingrich, who at last report didn't even have a campaign office in Iowa.

Romney probably doesn't aspire to be loved by Iowa Republicans. He'd settle for being liked.

This evening, he's making a rare campaign appearance in the state, with an apparent dual purpose: to demonstrate his compatibility with GOP conservatives, while advertising his acceptability to independents he will need if he wins the nomination. Unlike most candidates, he doesn't take questions from the audience -- making sure no one raises unwanted issues that might garble his message.

It's an understandable strategy, but it gives him the look of a football team trying to run out the clock even though it's losing. In trying to be all things to all people, Romney risks sounding like nothing much to anyone.

Tonight, he's at the site of a company called Iowa American Water, speaking in an auditorium-sized garage filled with white pickup trucks. Behind him is a banner with his slogan, "Believe in America," which like his speech has more sentiment than content.

Romney repeatedly strums the patriotism chord, reminiscing about long childhood driving vacations, going from national park to national park. "My mom and dad took me around to fall in love with America, and I did," he says. "I love this country. I love what we stand for."

He is more subtle than many conservatives in casting doubt on Barack Obama's patriotism. "He thinks the Europeans are great," Romney says in a tone of bewilderment. The president and his allies, he insists, "don't understand how America works."

It's hard to believe the flag-waving will be much help to Romney after proving ineffectual for John Kerry and John McCain -- despite their distinguished military service. Besides, among the GOP contenders, clinging to Old Glory and scorning the French don't exactly make you stand out.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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