Iowa GOP: Not as Crazy as You Imagine

At New York, John Heilemann ponders Mitt Romney's standing in Iowa. Early in the campaign, team Romney made a deliberate decision to downplay his presence in the first-in-the-nation caucus. He would not repeat his 2008 mistake, where he invested heavily in Iowa only to lose handedly to Mike Huckabee , a candidate who had been buoyed by a wave support from Iowa's active evangelical Christian base. Romney has made just three Iowa trips to date this year, and his Hawkeye staff is limited to five people with no television or radio purchases to his name.

Yet Romney arguably leads the Iowa pack two months out from caucus day. There has been no consistent front-runner in the polls. Michele Bachmann led for a time but now only garners single-digit support. The same fate befell Rick Perry, who has now been supplanted by Herman Cain (which may quickly evaporate after allegations of sexual harassment came to light this weekend). Romney, though, consistently places a close second in Iowa polls. He trailed Cain by a single percentage point in the all-important Des Moines Register poll this past weekend. His level of support hasn't dropped despite blowing off Iowa's delicate ego, where shaking hands and giving due deference to the caucuses' stature is all important. If he so chose, Romney could pummel the state with ads and hired staff during the closing months thanks to his fundraising prowess and personal wealth.

Still, Heilemann argues that it'd be a '08 redux if Romney began investing in the state:

In 2008, he carried 25 percent of the caucus vote, a proportion nearly identical to the share he currently commands in the Iowa polls. Is this a hard ceiling for him? It may not be: An influx of new, secular, and economically minded caucusgoers might push his total higher. But it may be, and if it is, there is a chance that social conservatives might yet coalesce behind an alternative candidate, boosting him or her to roughly 30 percent of the vote and denying Romney his win.

I'm not so sure. The Iowa GOP has become synonymous with staunch social conservatism after Huckabee's 2008 victory. But that doesn't fully capture the party. There is a parallel pro-business streak in the state's Republican establishment that shows little concern for the bleeding-heart moralizing of Christian activists.

That wing has experienced a rebirth over the past two years. In a campaign I detailed for the magazine earlier this fall, Terry Branstad bested Bob Vander Plaats to gain the GOP gubernatorial nomination last summer. The competition came to symbolize the struggle between these two wings. Vander Plaats ran a campaign wholly consumed with proselytizing against the evils of legal same-sex marriage, which Republican voters rejected in favor of Branstad's focus on taxes and regulation. The moderate Republican voters that Romney is relying on nationally exist in Iowa; they've just been pushed out of the limelight.

There are also more of these independent-minded Republicans than the last time Romney ran. In 2008, Democrats held a wide voter-registration advantage, 576,000 active registered Republicans. But in 2010, Republicans took advantage of an unpopular incumbent Democratic governor to swell their ranks to 611,000 today. These 35,000 new GOP voters are likely to fall into the group moderate inclined conservatives that would support Romney over the preaching of Rick Perry. They might just be enough to finally bump Romney over his 25 percent barrier, but only if he decided to campaign for their votes. But if he keeps his distance, those voters would likely stay home on Jan. 3, letting the caucus victory go to another wacko conservative all over again.

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