- Associated Press - Thursday, May 26, 2011

DES MOINES, Iowa — Perhaps nowhere is the difference between Mitt Romney version 2008 and version 2012 more evident than in Iowa.

Back then, the would-be Republican presidential contender staked his campaign on the state’s caucuses, spending more than $7 million and hiring a small army of workers in hopes that victory here would propel him to wins in New Hampshire and beyond. He came in second, a defeat that knocked his campaign off course.

Fast forward four years.

On Friday, the former Massachusetts governor will make his first trip to Iowa this year, underscoring what aides call a more focused, disciplined approach to his second attempt at the GOP nomination.

Romney’s absence thus far has prompted speculation he will bypass the leadoff caucus state, given the unease among Iowa’s Christian conservatives over his past support for abortion and gay rights, as well as his Mormon faith.

But Romney advisers insist he’ll be there.

“Voters will see him frequently and consistently hear him talk about his plan for creating jobs and growing the economy,” said Andrea Saul, communications director for Romney’s presidential exploratory campaign.

The all-but-declared presidential candidate promised as much during a telephone call to Iowa’s Gov. Terry Branstad on Wednesday.

Advisers also argue that unlike in 2008, a candidate running a lean campaign focused on the economy — like Romney is — could emerge as the winner over a field of Republicans who emphasize cultural issues.

“Certainly on economic issues Gov. Romney could do very well,” Branstad, a pro-business Republican nominated last year over a strict social conservative, told The Associated Press. “I know he’s doing well nationally, but Iowa could be important for him.”

Just how much of a presence Romney will have in the state is unclear, though his advisers privately acknowledge it will be less than four years ago.

Heading into the 2008 caucuses, Romney was largely unknown and had little choice but to build a strategy around success first in Iowa and then in New Hampshire.

Back then, he began in Iowa by advertising a year before the caucuses and hiring roughly 100 workers. And he put together an elaborate plan to win a 2007 straw poll, a test of caucus organizing strength.

Romney won the straw poll but, unable to soothe concerns about his faith and some moderate positions on some cultural issues he’d held in the past, he slipped from the top of the Iowa polls. He finished behind Mike Huckabee, a favorite of Christian evangelicals and social conservatives, in the January caucuses.

In hindsight, Romney advisers say he was overexposed in the state. He held regular question-and-answer sessions that drew attention to his reversals on gun, abortion and gay rights. As he sought to become better known nationally, he issued statements or commented on every issue of the day, leading to a scattered campaign message.

This time, Romney leads most national GOP popularity polls, and he doesn’t need the lift he sought in a caucus victory in 2008. Iowa GOP strategists doubt Romney will compete in the August straw poll in Ames, although his representatives attended the state party’s planning meeting for the event last week.

This time, he’s marshaling his campaign finances for a months-long nominating fight rather than blowing his cash early on just two states. He’s focusing heavily on his regional neighbor New Hampshire, where John McCain rallied to beat Romney in 2008, and looking to play aggressively in Nevada’s caucuses and the Florida primary.

In Iowa and across the nation, Romney has stayed out of the spotlight as he gets ready to formally launch his campaign. He’s held fewer than 20 public events in the past three months. Almost all have been focused on the economy.

His Boston-based national campaign team is smaller than in 2008. It occupies only one floor of the building, and in Iowa he has just three paid aides. The staff in New Hampshire is smaller, too.

Carl Forti, a top aide to Romney’s 2008 campaign who is unaligned this year, pointed to McCain as an example of how the former Massachusetts governor could seize the nomination with his strategy this year. The Arizona Republican ran a bare-bones Iowa campaign, lost the state and came back to win New Hampshire on his way to capturing the nomination.

“John McCain has shown that you don’t have to win every early state to get the nomination,” he said. “You can sort of weave your way through.”