Trying to stay above his party's fray, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney focused Monday on shoring up support in this early voting state and presenting himself as the GOP's most electable alternative to President Barack Obama.
The former Massachusetts governor stressed his recent fiscal proposals and business credentials at stops in eastern Iowa's Dubuque and Scott counties, where he won during his 2008 campaign for the Republican nomination.
Romney said nothing about the latest allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior against fellow national GOP poll leader Herman Cain. Instead, Romney stuck to the script during a 20-minute speech stressing his private-sector background and proposal to trim federal spending.
He tried to remind voters with his words and campaign schedule that he is running as much against the Democratic incumbent as he is trying to distinguish himself from his Republican rivals.
"You're willing to come out and look at someone running for president," he said, commending the 200 people who gathered in a Davenport water company garage to hear him speak. "That person has got to be able to beat Barack Obama and get America running again."
He said nothing about Cain or any of his rivals for the nomination during stops in Davenport, or earlier at a sheet-metal manufacturer in Dubuque.
Romney's only mention of the campaign came in an oblique reference to Iowa's leadoff nominating caucuses, for which Romney has campaigned lightly but in recent weeks quietly has begun paying more attention.
"You guys were helpful for me last time around, and I expect you'll be helpful for me this time," he said. "I'm planning on it."
Romney has sought to more tightly control the message coming from his campaign than he did four years ago.
During the Iowa stops, he tested an update of his standard campaign speech, incorporating the new economic policy he proposed last week. In it, Romney pledges to cut $500 billion from the federal deficit in his first four years in office.
In Davenport, he listed the National Endowment of the Arts, National Endowment for Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Amtrak as programs that may be cut or eliminated under a Romney administration.
"I think it's time for programs that we like but we simply can't afford to be stopped or to be cut back and make it on their own," he said, prompting applause. "And I'm going to do that."
At both stops, after speaking for less than 20 minutes, Romney shook hands with the audience but answered no questions from them or the corps of local and national reporters trailing him.
Although Monday's visit was just Romney's fourth to Iowa this year, it came only 18 days after his last trip. His presence in Iowa has been a stark shift from his aggressive, $10-million campaign for the 2008 caucuses that ended in a disappointing second-place finish.
But, while trying to minimize expectations all year, aides have gradually ramped up Romney's presence, and Romney has spoken recently of trying to win Iowa. With more devout social conservative Republicans divided among several candidates vying for that audience, Romney has begun cementing support from the state's more economically conservative segment, in hopes of scoring a surprise finish heading into New Hampshire, where expectations are high for him.
Romney has promised a more aggressive travel schedule in the final seven weeks. He's begun attacking rival Rick Perry in telephone messages highlighting immigration policy and plans telephone campaign events where he talks to thousands of Iowans and takes their questions.
Romney has polled at or near the top of surveys of likely GOP caucusgoers since entering the race in June, while GOP rivals Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Cain have ignited curiosity as more conservative alternatives.
He has been unable to pull away from the GOP pack but continues to pose the greatest threat to Obama in national surveys.
In a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted last week, one-third of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents said Romney has the best chance of beating Obama in November 2012.
And Romney's path Monday, south along the Mississippi River from Dubuque to Davenport, follows the route Obama took on his national bus tour in the fall.
Besides being a key early test, Iowa has been among a handful of closely contested general election battleground states in the past three presidential elections. Romney has also campaigned lately in New Hampshire, Nevada and Florida _ early voting states with general election sway. He's also visited fall battlegrounds Ohio and Pennsylvania in the past two weeks.
Dubuque Republican Russell Fuhrman said he likes Perry, the governor of Texas, more than Romney but plans to support Romney at the caucuses.
"It's because he has the best chance of being elected," Fuhrman said. "Gov. Romney can sweep the independents. None of the other Republicans can say that."
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