CLINTON, Iowa--Listening to Mitt Romney on the stump, you would think the 2012 Republican presidential primary is already over.
During his talks to crowds at tiny diners and coffee shops on the second day of his Iowa bus tour, Romney made only oblique mention of his rivals for the Republican nomination. Instead, he cast the race as a choice between him and President Barack Obama, a man he insisted again and again is "changing America into something we don't recognize."
"I'm frightened that we have a president that doesn't understand America, that he doesn't understand what makes us unique," Romney warned Wednesday at a stop in Clinton. "He would transform America. I will restore America."
With less than a week to go before Iowa's caucuses, Romney made only one passing reference to Ron Paul, whom he narrowly trails--by less than a percentage point--in the RealClearPolitics average of the latest polls from Iowa.
Asked about foreign policy by a voter at a meet-and-greet in Muscatine, Romney attacked Paul without mentioning his name directly.
"One of the people running for president thinks it's okay for Iran to have a nuclear weapon," Romney said. "I don't."
It was the only time the candidate or his staff appeared to mention Paul during the final days of the Iowa campaign, even as Paul has released TV ads attacking Romney as a "flip flopper" who represents the "status quo" in Washington. Instead, the Romney campaign has kept its focus on Newt Gingrich, releasing an email attacking him as an "unreliable" leader. And a super PAC supporting Romney has run TV and radio ads attacking Gingrich and Rick Perry—a move that will likely not only help Romney's campaign but will also boost Paul's chances to win Iowa.
Asked directly by a reporter if a Paul win next Tuesday benefits him, Romney smiled and curtly replied, "Ah, no."
But Romney's refusal to directly engage with Paul suggests that he and his advisers believe that if Romney can't win Iowa, the next best thing for his campaign would be for Paul to come in first place, because the libertarian-leaning member of Congress is not regarded as a viable threat to actually win the Republican presidential nomination.
Even privately, Romney's aides seem focused on running a general election campaign against Obama.
A senior Romney aide, who declined to be named discussing strategy, suggested in an interview with Yahoo News that Romney will spend much of his time in the next few weeks directly quoting from the campaign speeches that Barack Obama gave four years ago during his Democratic presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton.
"All you need to do is pull up the calendar and see where he was and what he was saying," the Romney aide told Yahoo News. "He has to explain why he hasn't delivered … That's a winning argument for us."
On Tuesday, Romney began his last stand in Iowa with a speech in Davenport that referenced the unkept "promises" Obama had made in a speech delivered in the same city four years ago this week.
Romney's presumed ability to beat Obama in November--as evidenced by polls showing him with a better shot at the presidency than his Republican opponents--has become his campaign's central theme, not just in Iowa but in all the early voting states, including South Carolina and Florida, where he faces a tougher fight.
The biggest unknown is whether the contrast with Obama will be a winning strategy with the undecided Republican voters who have searched endlessly for an alternative to Romney.
Romney was cautious on the trail Tuesday about raising expectations for his campaign here. Still, he admitted to reporters he couldn't name a reason why he couldn't win the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3--though he didn't predict that he would be the winner.
"I can't imagine, except that there are other good people running, and they've got good campaigns," Romney said. "I like the fact that my support is building and the momentum is positive, but I can't tell you where it's going to end up."
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