WEST DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Republican Mitt Romney campaigned in Iowa Sunday for U.S. Senate candidate Joni Ernst, hoping to capitalize on President Barack Obama's sagging approval rating in the state two years after he defeated the former Massachusetts governor to win a second term in part by carrying Iowa.
The 2012 GOP presidential nominee gave a brief but robust pitch to more than 150 supporters for the Iowa state senator, who is locked in a tight race with Democratic U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley. It is the closest Senate race in the nation where no incumbent is seeking re-election, according to recent public opinion polls. The two are competing for the seat held by retiring five-term Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.
Referring to Ernst, a combat veteran and Iowa National Guard lieutenant colonel, Romney said: "She has experience leading. We send a lot of people to Washington who know how to talk but not a lot of people who know how to lead."
Romney's visit, which includes a stop with Ernst Monday in Cedar Rapids, is part of the Massachusetts governor's role as a senior leader in a national Republican Party in search of one. Since the 2012 election, his national popularity has improved, as Obama's has foundered amid the economy's slow recovery and international crises.
And unlike the president, Romney has been busy in the past two weeks making public appearances on behalf of Republicans in competitive Senate races. Republicans need to gain six seats in the Nov. 4 elections to claim the majority. He hinted early in his Iowa remarks at what he has said repeatedly, that he would not seek the presidency again, despite some rekindled interest in the two-time presidential candidate.
"They say if you're running for office you shouldn't tell jokes. But I'm not running for office," Romney said, before offering a dig at Obama.
Earlier this month, Romney told reporters while campaigning for candidates in Georgia that he wished he had won in 2012, "But I'm not running for anything."
Romney did not take questions from reporters Sunday after his appearance in West Des Moines.
Confidants of Romney agreed he's unlikely to run a third time, despite new polling data showing Iowans now prefer him to Obama.
"He's said it a million times," said Ron Kaufman, a close Romney friend, referring to the former candidate's claim he is not running again.
Romney is well known among Iowa Republicans having competed in the state's leadoff presidential caucuses in 2008 and 20012. He finished in second place both times.
Obama's job approval is just 39 percent in Iowa, where he won by five percentage points in 2012 but where voters say today they would prefer Romney, according to the new Iowa poll. The poll taken last week included responses from 1,000 likely voters in Iowa, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Romney's schedule has included stops in Michigan, Kentucky, Georgia, Colorado and Iowa. The latter two are the only close Senate battles in states where Obama beat Romney but where a Democratic Senate seat is in jeopardy. In Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall is facing a stiff re-election challenge from U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner.
A Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll published Saturday showed Ernst holding a 48 to 47 percent lead over Braley, marking improvements in the past two weeks by both candidates though more by Braley.