- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Mitt Romney’s above-the-fray campaign strategy will be put to the test this week in Iowa.

The former Massachusetts governor will descend to earth and go toe-to-toe with other Republican presidential candidates in a nationally televised debate Thursday before stepping away again as the rest of the field competes in the low-stakes but high-profile Ames Straw Poll.

The poll — part street fair, part political convention — is designed to take the temperature of state-party activists, and Mr. Romney spent heavily to win it in 2007.

But he went on to finish a disappointing second in the 2008 Iowa caucuses and eventually lost the nomination to Sen. John McCain of Arizona. He is taking a different tack this year, declining to compete in straw polls and focusing instead on a national campaign that he hopes will keep him out of any conservative intraparty sniping.

That makes Thursday’s debate all the more important for the national polling front-runner, said David Yepson, who spent 34 years reporting politics for the Des Moines Register. He said Mr. Romney must strike a balance between his disciplined message against President Obama and defending himself against attacks in the political version of the playground game “King of the Hill.”

“He has to be able to thrust and parry,” Mr. Yepson said. “He can’t just ignore the attacks that are going to come his way, but on the other hand he doesn’t want to get down in the gutter either. So, he has to know how to pick and choose.”

That could be much easier said than done, now that some candidates appear poised to take a more aggressive line with Mr. Romney, who is hamstrung by the universal health care law he signed as governor and lingering questions about his authenticity that are tied to his views on abortion and same-sex marriage, which have evolved over time.

Still, the temptation for the field to focus on Mr. Obama in Thursday’s debate, and again in stump speeches at the straw poll, will be strong, given the backdrop of international turmoil, a sour domestic economy and grim government finances — capped by last week’s decision by Standard & Poor’s to lower the federal government’s credit rating.

At the same time, Mr. Obama’s favorability ratings have dropped, adding to the sense that he could be vulnerable to a credible Republican challenger in 2012.

Mr. Romney’s name will still appear on the straw poll ballot on Saturday, though he said earlier this year that he would not actively compete in any straw polls.

He has vowed to try to win the state’s caucuses next year, when the voting really matters.

“You’ll see me plenty in Iowa,” Mr. Romney told reporters while visiting Iowa on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.

On this swing, he will attend the state’s iconic fair and hold a fundraiser before Thursday’s debate, but leave before the straw poll Saturday.

That likely makes Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican who runs neck-and-neck with Mr. Romney in polling in Iowa, the person to beat this weekend.

But more than winners, the straw poll puts a focus on sorting out the bottom of the field, and has forced some candidates out of past elections.

Analysts said former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty may have the most riding on this week, after spending time and energy wooing Iowa voters in recent weeks. Others say the expectations are also high for Rep. Ron Paul, who stumbled in Iowa in his own 2008 campaign and is hoping for a better showing this year.

Also actively competing are former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Rep. Thaddeus G. McCotter of Michigan and businessman Herman Cain.

They have doled out tens of thousands of dollars for coveted space on the grounds of the event, held at the arena on the grounds of Iowa State University.

On the ballot but, like Mr. Romney, not actively competing are former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

For Mr. Romney, his $18 million campaign donation haul between April and June ensures he will survive, no matter what the outcome this weekend.

“The Ames Straw Poll has few stakes for Gov. Romney. He has the money and name recognition to withstand a poor finish,” said Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the left-leaning Brookings Institution. “Plus, few people expect him to do very well in Iowa so he is on the right side of the expectations game. The candidates who have to do well are those down the political pecking order. If someone is not well known or doesn’t have much money, the Iowa poll matters a lot.”

This time, the Romney camp is employing a less-is-more strategy in Iowa while concentrating more of his attention in New Hampshire, which is more political fertile ground for him.

Oddly enough, Mr. Romney might have found an ally this week in Rick Perry. The three-term Texas governor is polling second to Mr. Romney in most national polls and is expected to officially announce his candidacy during a speech in South Carolina on Saturday, likely winning the day’s news headlines.

“With Perry’s announcement in South Carolina on Saturday, the Texas governor is stepping on the Ames poll story and taking some of the luster away from the candidate or candidates who can claim victory in Iowa,” said Larry Sabato, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

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