With just about two months to go before the votes are counted in the Iowa Caucus, one of the key questions facing the Republican field is whether or not frontrunner Mitt Romney will actively contest the Hawkeye state. Romney went all out four years ago and suffered a devastating defeat when dark horse candidate Mike Huckabee came from out of nowhere to win the state. Romney’s 2008 campaign never recovered from the blow. With polls showing that Romney hasn’t gained much ground among Iowa voters since the conventional wisdom has assumed for months that Romney would only make a token effort there in January so as to avoid a loss that might affect his chances in other states.
But the thinking here is that the circumstances of the race dictate a very different strategy than that sort of play-if-safe approach. With no single conservative candidate in position to dominate the social conservatives that lifted Huckabee to victory in 2008 and the Tea Partiers who have dominated the GOP in the last two years, Romney has an excellent chance of taking the caucus with the same 25 percent of the votes that he got last time. Though it means risking his reputation, it presents a unique opportunity for a knockout blow that might assure his nomination after only one state had voted.
It’s not clear what if any damage has been done to Herman Cain by the revelation of sexual harassment allegations being lodged against him. But whether or not Cain’s momentum is slowed, the story served to remind voters that they still don’t know very much about the Godfather Pizza CEO.
By the same token, it hasn’t been a very good week for Rick Perry either. The Texas governor thought to gain an advantage with his flat tax proposal but he sabotaged that with his baffling talk about President Obama’s birth certificate. Though he has the money to stay in the race as long as he wants, as was the case with his disappointing debate performances, the chief obstacle to a Perry comeback remains Perry himself.
As for the others in the race, Rick Santorum has invested all his resources into an effort to capture the social conservative vote and has a “ground game” that might turnout enough voters to give him a respectable finish. No one really expects Newt Gingrich to be nominated but his strong debate performances ensure that he will receive enough votes in Iowa to put himself on the map.
All this adds up to a deeply divided Republican field. With so many conservatives vying for the title of the “not Romney” in 2012, the math indicates that the state is eminently winnable for Romney. Even a small increase over that 25 percent he won in 2008 might ensure a plurality with so many names on the ballot.
Some argue that this might still be true if Romney invested few resources in Iowa in the last weeks before the caucus but this is a misnomer. Given the fervor with which Iowans guard their first-in-the-nation status, Romney would almost certainly be punished for not trying. That would mean a disappointing result that wouldn’t complicate his expected triumphs in other states such as New Hampshire.
On the other hand if Romney to go all out in Iowa he might well take the state giving him a huge momentum boost on the eve of a New Hampshire primary that he is already expected to win. Romney victories in both of the first two contest would make him the prohibitive favorite in the next states and the almost certain nominee at that point.
This decision will tell us a great deal not only about Romney’s grasp of political tactics but his character. While there are no guarantees in politics no matter which path he chooses, this is a moment for the frontrunner to remember that fortune favors the bold. The straightest path to the nomination next year for him runs through Iowa.