Romney returns to Iowa, as advisers wonder if he can win there

Holly Bailey

SIOUX CITY, IOWA--Mitt Romney is set to campaign throughout western Iowa Thursday—his first visit in more than two months to the crucial early caucus state.

The former Massachusetts governor had signaled he wouldn't compete as intensely in Iowa as he did four years ago, when he lost the state's 2008 caucus to Mike Huckabee in spite of investing lots of time and millions of dollars in the state.

While Romney has been focused more on New Hampshire and Florida in recent months, his campaign has openly started to reconsider its strategy in Iowa, as polls show none of his GOP rivals have opened up a clear consistent lead in the state.

An Insider Advantage poll released earlier this week found Herman Cain leading Romney by 8 points in Iowa, 26 percent to 18 percent. But a NBC News/Marist Poll released two weeks ago found Romney leading Cain by 6 points, 26 percent to 20 percent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had been considered a frontrunner in the state when he jumped into the race in August, trailed in a distant third place in both polls.

Romney's biggest vulnerability in the state is that he's considered more moderate than his GOP rivals. But with so many candidates vying to be the conservative alternative to Romney, political observers predict voters may split their votes among Perry, Cain, Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum.

According to Craig Robinson, former political director at the Iowa Republican Party, that could provide Romney an opening in Iowa.

"If he were to come to Iowa and show people he wants their vote, he has a serious shot of winning," Robinson told The Ticket.

The biggest unknown about Romney's chances in Iowa is how much support he can recoup there from his 2008 run--and whether that legacy support would be enough to help him slide to victory in the state, even if it's by a narrow margin.

As he returns to Iowa today, the former Massachusetts governor will be appearing in the most Republican parts of the state. He's set to hold a town hall in Sioux City, before traveling to Treynor and then onto Council Bluffs.

Last week, Ann Romney, the candidate's wife, campaigned in the region—a visit that many observers regarded as a test of the kind of reception her husband might receive. The ex-governor's advisers will be watching closely today to see how many voters will turn out for today's appearances, and how they will react to his message.

Ahead of today's Romney events, news of the candidate's visit had been leading local newscasts—itself a notable sign at a time when Iowa is overrun by presidential hopefuls seeking to stir up media interest in their campaigns.