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Do-over: Are Mitt Romney’s 2008 voters enough for him to win Iowa this time?

Holly Bailey
The Ticket

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Romney in Davenport, Iowa (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

DAVENPORT, Iowa--When Mitt Romney returned to this state on Tuesday for the final push before next week's presidential caucuses, he began by telling more than 300 people at a hotel here about a speech Barack Obama delivered in the same city four years ago this week.

"He promised to bring people together. He promised to change the broken system in Washington. He promised to do away with gridlock. He promised to repair the nation," Romney said. "Well, Mr. President … You have failed to deliver on the promises you made here in Davenport."

Romney did not mention any of his Republican rivals as he looked past the Republican primaries and caucuses and toward the November general election. But if Romney wants to quickly clear the Republican field so that he can focus on a direct challenge of President Obama, he must first deliver on some of the promise that he, too, demonstrated four years ago in Iowa.

Perhaps the biggest unknown heading into Tuesday's caucuses is whether Romney can win here merely by activating the organization he built in Iowa for his 2008 presidential campaign. With key voting blocs, like social conservatives, divided among several other candidates, some Republicans in the state say Romney has a real possibility of pulling off a surprise win on Jan. 3.

"It's a wild card," Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party, told Yahoo News. "He has a base of support from 2008, but nobody really knows what these people will do."

For months, Romney has been coy about how much money and effort he would invest in Iowa—and with good reason. Four years ago, he spent tens of millions of dollars to win the state—hiring dozens of consultants and flooding the TV and radio airwaves with campaign ads. Romney criss-crossed the state in what the campaign called the "Mittmobile," visiting each of the state's 99 counties at least once.

"By the end, there wasn't anybody who didn't know who he was," Renee Schulte, a state representative who ran Romney's organization in Linn County in 2008 and is now a co-chairwoman of his 2012 campaign in Iowa, told Yahoo News.

But it didn't help. The ex-governor came in a disappointing second place to Mike Huckabee, an insurgent candidate who had spent virtually nothing compared to Romney. The loss contributed to Romney's speedy collapse in the polls in other early voting states like New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.

Yet, while Romney lost to Huckabee in 2008 by 10 points, more than 30,000 people supported his candidacy, and he won several counties by large margins in eastern and western Iowa. In a divided field with lower voter turnout expected, 30,000 votes might be enough to win Iowa in 2012.

"Four years ago, he started out with a name recognition of 3 percent, and this time, around, we now have a foundation to work with," Schulte told Yahoo.

Still, Romney has kept his distance. Tuesday's visit was just his eighth trip to Iowa since he formally announced his 2012 campaign. In 2008, he had at least five campaign headquarters all over the state. This time, Romney has just one office, located in an old Blockbuster video store in Des Moines. He has just four paid staffers and one political consultant in the state, according to his campaign—one of the smallest footprints of any of the 2012 contenders.

For his few visits to the state in recent months, Romney has zeroed in on the areas where he did well last time around. On Tuesday, he kicked off a four-day bus tour of the state in Scott County, where he won by almost 10 points in 2008. On Wednesday, he's set to make three more stops in eastern Iowa, including events in Clinton County, where he won in 2008 by 11 points, and Johnson County (9 points).

At the same time, his campaign has quietly built a volunteer network using its lists of the supporters Romney had in 2008. The campaign has also organized conference calls to connect Romney with the voters who backed his presidential bid four years ago. And several of his key supporters from 2008 who haven't yet committed to a candidate in 2012 recently received a Christmas card from Romney, featuring a photo of him posing with his family.

"We're doing things a lot more conventionally this time," Connie Schmett, a longtime Republican activist in Iowa who is heading up Romney's organizing efforts in Polk County, told Yahoo News. "We're really focusing on people knocking on doors and talking to their neighbors."

That's not to say Romney isn't redeploying some of the strategy and tactics he used in 2008. In recent weeks, his campaign has spent more than $1.1 million on TV ads in Iowa, which doesn't include the nearly $3 million a super PAC supporting his 2012 bid has spent in the state. On Wednesday, Romney will launch more ads—a $150,000 buy in the Quad Cities.

Romney's consistent position at or near the top of the polls in Iowa has prompted grumbling from candidates who have spent more time in the state. On Tuesday, Rick Santorum urged voters to "stick it to" candidates who treat Iowa as a "flyover state."

But Schulte argues that Romney's lack of retail politicking in the state won't hurt him on caucus night—in part because he was a ubiquitous presence in 2008.

"This time, he's continuing a relationship he built four years ago, which is different than some of these candidates who aren't as well known to people," she said.

Romney's 2012 campaign in Iowa hasn't gone entirely smoothly. Several of his former top staffers and backers in the state have gone to work for other candidates or have opted to stay neutral in the race.

Doug Gross, a Des Moines attorney and Republican strategist who was Romney's state chairman four years ago, told Yahoo News he decided against backing Romney's 2012 campaign because of questions about his former boss's authenticity.

"I was concerned about whether Mitt would be true to himself and not try to be somebody he's not," said Gross, who has not endorsed a candidate in the primary. "I didn't want to go through a cycle where I was working for a candidate who wasn't comfortable in his own skin."

Romney has also come under intense questioning at town halls around the state about his support for a Massachusetts health care law that included an individual insurance mandate similar to what was passed in "Obamacare"—an issue that his advisors worry could depress his support on caucus night.

And while the Romney campaign talks up its "stealth" volunteer campaign in Iowa, his advisers admit it's also their biggest liability heading into Tuesday's vote.

"The greatest challenge is that it is a volunteer organization this time around," Schulte told Yahoo News. "When you don't have as much staff, you don't have as many people to make those turnout calls. … So it's a little unpredictable."

Romney's reception in Davenport on Tuesday was a hopeful sign for the campaign. Speaking to a crowd in an ornate ballroom at the historic Hotel Blackhawk, Romney marveled at the sight of the crowd, which spilled into the hotel's hallways and lobby. At one point, a Romney spokeswoman estimated the crowd to be at least 800 people—about the same  size of some of Romney's largest events four years ago.

'The halls are full, the stairways are full … This is just amazing," Romney declared. "I don't know how you got here, but I appreciate it."

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