Dubuque, IA -- For Mitt Romney, the fields of Iowa must seem ever-so-alluring right now.
Despite visiting the state only four times this year -- and only twice since August, when the Amesstraw poll effectively launched the nominating season in earnest -- Romney returns Monday to Iowa in a virtual tie for the lead in the first-in-the-nation caucuses that effectively ended his presidential ambitions four years ago.
According to the most recent Des Moines Register poll, Herman Cain is polling at 23 percent, with Romney trailing by just one point, at 22 percent. In the same poll, the winner of the straw poll, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, is mired in single digits at fourth place, and Romney's most-targeted nemesis, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is tied for fifth place with Newt Gingrich.
Against this backdrop, Romney returns to the state's eastern edge, where he performed well in 2008, for two business-focused campaign stops.
The former Massachusetts governor's relative scarcity in the state this cycle has been a point of focus in the media and pundit class. Four years ago he spent millions in the Hawkeye State, and largely staked his campaign on a win here, only to see his hopes dashed at the last minute by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who marshaled the state's social conservative voters and bested Romney, 34 to 25 percent.
Romney's gameplan this time revolves around beating expectations; an aggressive push toward actually winning the state is seen by observers as a potential trap for Romney, since a defeat under those circumstances could again deflate his candidacy as it had in 2008. With that in mind, Romney's largely based his campaign in New Hampshire this time, downplaying Iowa by skipping the Ames Straw Poll in August, and the Iowa GOP's Ronald Reagan dinner last week. He's also eschewed traditional stops at Pizza Ranches, diners and coffee shops. Beating expectations in Iowa became the presumed goal, with an aggressive push towards actually winning the state seen by many observers as something of a trap.
Others, however, see an opening.
“He could come out here and campaign aggressively and win in Iowa, beat all expectations, and frankly I think put it all away in the first state," said Doug Gross, Romney’s 2008 Iowa state chair, who is unaffiliated this cycle, on the eve of Romney's last visit.
And on that visit, Romney himself told Iowans in the Western part of the state that he wants their continued support, and that he will be competing here -- to win.
“I will be here again and again campaigning here. I want to get the support of the good people in Iowa," Romney said. "I’d love to win in Iowa, any of us would.”
Now there are signs he may be trying to do just that.
Last week, Romney's campaign held a live tele-town hall with Arizona Sheriff Paul Babeu, a Romney supporter, focusing on immigration policy. A campaign official said the campaign placed thousands of calls. Iowans who didn't answer were left a voicemail comparing Romney's immigration policies with those of Texas Governor Rick Perry.
The same campaign official said there had been other such telephone town halls in the state, and that there would be more, but that they did not signal any kind of shift in strategy.
“Our strategy is consistent with what it has been,” the campaign official said. “We take Iowa very seriously, we want to do well and we are working hard.”
Romney's son Josh, who visited all of the state's 99 counties last cycle, made three campaign stops last week.
With the social conservative vote largely splintered, and Cain under siege in the wake of last week's imbroglio over sexual harassment accusations from the late 1990's, Romney's return to Iowa is his second in just three weeks. While that total may not match up with say, Rick Santorum, who has now become the first candidate to visit all 99 of Iowa's counties, it puts Romney one visit ahead of the state's current frontrunner, Cain, who has had even less of a presence here than Romney since the straw poll.
Both the October 20th visit on the western border, and today's along the eastern, are in friendly territory for Romney. In 2008, he won most of the counties along the edges of the state, but lost the dark red center. It may take a serious push into the state's conservative core to determine how hard, exactly, Romney is choosing to fight for Iowa.