Romney takes low-key approach to GOP debate in Iowa

Mitt Romney answered questions from reporters yesterday in Pella, Iowa, where he took part in a business round-table. Mitt Romney answered questions from reporters yesterday in Pella, Iowa, where he took part in a business round-table. (Charles Dharapak/ Associated Press)
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / August 11, 2011

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PELLA, Iowa - Mitt Romney returned yesterday to this crucial early voting state, bringing with him the economic-themed message that he has carried around the country.

But he also found time to look into the cornfields and provide commentary about the way the winds may be blowing here.

“Looks like it’s going to be cool and sunny both,’’ Romney said of the weather forecast for today‘s Iowa State Fair. “Last time at the State Fair, I think it had to be in the high 80s or 90s.’’

“The weather,’’ he added, “has markedly improved this cycle.’’

Romney has used his name recognition, financial connections, and business background to ride to the top of the polls for the Republican presidential nomination. Candidates have fought among themselves for position as the chief alternative to the former Massachusetts governor, but they have largely ignored Romney himself.

A debate tonight, and Saturday’s Ames straw poll, are expected to offer some clarity on the field during a crucial week for the Republican contest.

Tonight marks the first time Jon Huntsman takes a national stage to debate his rivals. The former Utah governor has called for civility in politics, but has also grown increasingly pointed in his critique of Romney’s record on job creation and health care.

The stakes are perhaps highest for former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who has struggled to get out of the basement in the polls and may have to focus more on a fellow Minnesotan, Representative Michele Bachmann, than on Romney.

Bachmann and Pawlenty have been campaigning heavily in advance of the Ames straw poll, being held in Ames on Saturday, crisscrossing the state (Bachmann in a giant bus plastered with her name, Pawlenty in a plain Winnebago) to boost the turnout by their supporters.

Bachmann delivered a solid performance in June at a New Hampshire debate, which provided her with significant momentum. But some have doubted her longevity and broad-based appeal and have wondered whether a propensity for gaffes will hamper her bid.

Romney has done little campaigning in Iowa; yesterday marked only his second trip this year to the state that in six months will jump-start the GOP nominating contests.

He has three paid staff here, a fraction of what he had four years ago, but still leads in national polls and is considered the front-runner for the GOP nomination, albeit a shaky one.

In one of the sharpest signals yet of his strategy for the early primary states, Romney will fly to New Hampshire for a house party tomorrow, just as most of the other candidates are scrambling to build support in Iowa.

“I imagine you’re going to see more of me from time to time between now and sometime early in January,’’ Romney told small-business owners at a round-table talk yesterday. “You’re going to be having a little event here, some caucuses here. And I’d like to do darn well in those caucuses.’’

Romney’s wife, Ann, will also be in New Hampshire today, meeting with GOP activists in Keene and Hampstead. She would have joined him in Iowa, Romney said, but she got called for jury duty in Massachusetts. A campaign aide said later that she reported yesterday morning to Concord District Court and was dismissed by noon.

Romney is scheduled this morning to engage in one of the quirky rituals of Iowa politics: visiting the State Fair, donning an apron and serving up some pork chops, and standing atop a soapbox where he will be given 20 minutes to address the crowd.

But much of the talk here is not about the current crop of candidates, but about one who may soon enter.

“I like that guy from Texas. What’s his name?’’ Gail Cripe, a 62-year-old from Jolley, Iowa, who was wearing a Tea Party Patriots T-shirt and camouflage-colored suspenders, said the other night while waiting for Bachmann to speak.

Cripe was referring to Governor Rick Perry, who is expected to announce plans to run for president Saturday in both South Carolina and New Hampshire.

Nearly a dozen supporters, wearing burnt-orange “Americans for Perry’’ T-shirts, have been traveling around Iowa and are mounting a write-in campaign for him at the Straw Poll.

“It’s a wide-open race,’’ said Governor Terry Branstad of Iowa, a Republican who has stayed neutral. “And the last Texas governor that got in . . . relatively late won the Straw Poll, won the caucus, and was elected president of the United States twice.’’

Romney demurred yesterday afternoon when he was asked about Perry’s prospects, particularly given that he’s steered the state that has created the most jobs and could undercut Romney’s message on the economy.

“I’ll get a full view, I’m sure, of all the successes of Governor Perry,’’ he said. “He’s a fine man and a fine governor. The record of Texas, I think, speaks for itself.’’ But, Romney added, he still thinks he has the best resume to improve the struggling economy.

“For those people who think the economy really is what is essential in providing a brighter future for our families and preserving our values, then I think they’re going to look to me as someone who understands how the economy works and can get it back on track,’’ Romney said.

Romney was joined yesterday by his son Tagg, who four years ago was a frequent presence on the campaign trail aboard a bus they dubbed the “Mitt-Mobile.’’

Yesterday had a decidedly lower-key feel, with the Romney crew hopping into a six-seat red Ford Expedition.

Matt Viser can be reached at