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Romney ready to 'test waters' on Iowa swing

Mitt Romney heads to Iowa today for a conference of governors, with his political standing enhanced by a year of aggressive outreach and financial support for Republicans in the gateway state for the 2008 presidential nomination contest.

Romney's advisers have distributed money from his political action committee, mounting an effort to build good will. That effort appears to have outpaced that of any other Republican on the long list of potential presidential candidates. His Commonwealth Political Action Committee has made dozens of small contributions to county party organizations and GOP candidates, targeting the money with the help of a former executive director of the Iowa Republican Party who is the treasurer and an adviser to the Iowa PAC.

During his stop in Des Moines this weekend for the National Governors Association conference, Romney has set aside some time for meetings with legislative leaders and a former governor of the state and has scheduled interviews with several national political reporters.

''Nobody's committed to anybody at this point in time, but I've heard great things about Governor Romney," said Terry E. Branstad, a former governor who is scheduled to have dinner with Romney tonight. Branstad, now president of Des Moines University, said he is also set to have lunch tomorrow with Governor George E. Pataki of New York, another possible GOP presidential hopeful who will be in Des Moines this weekend.

The caucus kickoff may be 2 1/2 years away, but presidential politics are always in season in Iowa. The governors' conclave provides an early schmoozing opportunity for about a half-dozen governors, Democrats and Republicans, who are thinking about running for president. More than 30 state executives have registered for the governors' conference.

Politics, as much as policy, is on Romney's Iowa itinerary, but the governor, who will become chairman of the Republican Governors Association this fall, said his focus would be on helping other Republican governors with reelection efforts and on laying groundwork for the GOP to regain the governorship in Iowa.

''I'll be having meetings with Iowa Republican leaders to talk about how we can support that," Romney told reporters at a press conference yesterday in Boston.

Iowa's governor, Thomas J. Vilsack, a two-term Democrat who is hosting the event, has said he will not seek reelection in 2006.

Romney is also planning to engage in ''testing of the waters," as aides describe it, that could be helpful in a national race. He is expected to leave the national conference early, late Saturday, and return to Massachusetts.

On Monday, he is expected to unveil long-term plans for capital spending.

Romney, who has said he will decide this fall whether to seek a second term as governor, last visited Iowa in October to stump for President Bush's reelection and headline a state party fund-raiser.

After arriving late this morning, Romney is scheduled to join a discussion of six GOP governors, followed by a fund-raiser for the Iowa Republican Party. Later, he will meet with Republican leaders of the Iowa General Assembly and will wrap up the day by dining with Branstad, who stepped down in 1998 after 16 years as Iowa governor.

Also planning to attend the dinner, Branstad said, are two of his former chiefs of staff who went on to become forces in Iowa GOP circles: Doug Gross, the party's unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate against Vilsack in 2002, and Dave Roederer, Iowa chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004.

Branstad is a former client of Michael Murphy, Romney's chief political adviser. Murphy's firm, DC Navigators, manages Romney-affiliated political action committees that have distributed campaign contributions over the past year to Republican candidates and party entities in Iowa and 17 other states. Last year, Romney's federal PAC and four state PACs (Iowa, South Carolina, Michigan, and Arizona) contributed a total of $225,000 to candidates and party committees in 18 states.

The Iowa contributions are spread through the low levels of the state's GOP politics, where any presidential candidate needs to build support for the caucuses.

In late 2004, Romney's Commonwealth PAC distributed $64,000 to 35 legislative candidates, 16 county party committees, and the Iowa Republican Party. Another $3,750 went to three Iowa congressional candidates, among $28,000 donated by Romney's federal PAC to 31 US Senate and House candidates.

For the first six months of this year, a newly filed report says, Commonwealth PAC doled out another $5,850 in small donations to 23 of Iowa's 99 county committees, mostly in heavily Republican western Iowa. Another $1,000 went to the state party, and checks also went to a state legislator ($500), State Auditor David A. Vaudt ($1,000), the only Republican among seven statewide officeholders, and Paul D. Pate ($500), the Republican mayor of Cedar Rapids, the second most populous city in the state. Pate, a former Iowa secretary of state, announced this week that he will not seek reelection this fall.

Trent Wisecup, a partner at Navigators, is chairman of Romney's Iowa PAC and has made several trips to the state to consult party and legislative leaders. The treasurer of the Iowa PAC is David Kochel, a past executive director of the Iowa and Michigan Republican parties. An unpaid adviser to the embryonic Romney effort in the Midwest, Kochel was a direct-mail consultant to Romney's 2002 gubernatorial campaign and has a long association with Murphy, including work for Arnold Schwarzenegger in California.

Romney's PAC plays into an Iowa tradition.

''The Republican Party in Iowa is very good at leveraging potential national campaigns for their own purposes," said Dennis J. Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University in Des Moines. ''The state party will go to people like Romney who have a PAC and say, 'You could help us, and a lot of people will remember.' "

Last fall, Romney's PAC gave $4,000 to Senate Republican Leader Stewart Iverson, who was in the middle of a four-year term and was not on the ballot. It was part of about $200,000 Iverson then funneled back to the party for other races.

Iverson, who met Romney during the Bay Stater's visit last fall, said: ''It's part of my responsibility to raise money for the party. . . . I had lunch with him and with his folks. We talked about a number of issues, and they were very generous."

Romney impressed him, Iverson said, ''but it's a little too early to have narrowed the field for me" in '08. He said he had been invited to meet with Romney and Pataki this weekend, but had a scheduling conflict in his district. An Iowa Senate committee co-chairman was scheduled to pinch hit for Iverson at the meeting with Romney, which House Speaker Christopher Rants also plans to attend. Rants was another recipient of $4,000 from the Romney PAC last fall. ''It was nice of them; I appreciated that," said Rants, who said he was also impressed by Romney.

Aides to GOP legislative leaders said they also hoped to set up meetings with Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, the incoming chairman of the National Governors Association who is hosting a dinner for national and local reporters today, and Haley Barbour of Mississippi. Both are mentioned as possible candidates in '08.

A Barbour spokesman, however, said that the former national party chairman would not arrive in Des Moines until Sunday and that no meetings with legislators had been scheduled. Huckabee, who does not have an Iowa PAC, said in an interview that he had not been contacted. But he said he has helped raise party funds in about 35 states and would continue to do so, whether or not he decides to seek the presidency.

Like Romney, Pataki and Huckabee were featured at Iowa fund-raising events last fall. Romney is not the only national figure with a PAC to spend money in Iowa in anticipation of a possible run in 2008. But he has been the most active, Iowa state campaign finance reports indicate.

In 2004, Bill Frist's Volunteer PAC, seeking to promote the Senate majority leader and Tennessee Republican, distributed more than $750,000 to US House and Senate candidates across the country, $20,000 of which went to three Iowa congressional candidates. At the state level, Frist's VolPAC, as it was known, donated a total of $14,500 to 13 legislative candidates, including $2,000 apiece to Rants and Iverson. Sandhills PAC, affiliated with Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, kicked in $5,000 for the Iowa GOP and $1,000 each to a couple of county committees.

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