There are three problems with this scenario, however. The first has to do with Romney’s support in Iowa. In 2008, he carried 25 percent of the caucus vote, a proportion nearly identical to the share he currently commands in the Iowa polls. Is this a hard ceiling for him? It may not be: An influx of new, secular, and economically minded caucusgoers might push his total higher. But it may be, and if it is, there is a chance that social conservatives might yet coalesce behind an alternative candidate, boosting him or her to roughly 30 percent of the vote and denying Romney his win.
Which brings us to the second problem: Perry. Although the Texas governor has seen his poll numbers plummet in Iowa—from a high of 29 percent in early September to a low of 6 percent in October—as he has elsewhere, Perry’s heartfelt and hard-core Evangelical convictions and his tea-party bona fides, combined with his campaign’s capacity to mount a full-bore organizing blitz on the ground and drop a metric ton of negative TV ads from the air, make him a significant threat to rebound in the state. And indeed, at the Faith & Freedom dinner, Perry clearly signaled his intent to play hard for the affections of the religious right. Taking swipes first at Romney, who in an earlier incarnation supported abortion rights, and then at Cain, Perry thundered, to loud applause, “Being pro-life is not a matter of campaign convenience; it is a core conviction … It is a liberal canard to say ‘I am personally pro-life; but government should stay out of that decision.’ If that is your view, you are not pro-life, you are pro-having-your-cake-and-eating-it too.”
Then there is the third problem, which revolves around the metanarrative of the campaign. If Romney decides to go all-in in Iowa, the national story line will shift in a direction that the candidate and his team have successfully kept it from doing all year—making the caucuses, instead of New Hampshire, the first test of his strength, and making central the question of whether Romney can slay the demons of 2008. “Iowa will become all about Mitt the minute he gets in it,” says a Republican operative unaligned with any campaign. “This will tell us whether Mitt Romney has really matured. If he’s grown up into a guy who could be president, he won’t do it. I think Iowa is Lucy and the football for him.”
A number of Romney’s senior advisers are broadly sympathetic to this view. But others are increasingly tempted to take the plunge. Below the radar, Romney’s people in Iowa have labored long and mightily to maintain the network of activists and volunteers who were behind the governor in the last go-round. And with each passing day that the field remains fragmented and Perry remains unable to revivify himself, the lure of Iowa only grows for those in Romney’s Boston brain trust.
In the end, however, the decision won’t rest with them—it will fall to Mitt. For all of Romney’s supposed business acumen, in 2008 the hallmarks of his candidacy were vacillation, indecision, and a paralyzing brand of caution. Recalling the mortifying experience, more than one of his advisers from that campaign invoke a nickname that Romney picked up in the days when he was building Bain Capital: Sweaty Armpit Mitt. But in 2012, that version of Romney has been little in evidence. He has operated with a striking degree of calm, certitude, and discipline—staying focused on the economy, largely ignoring his Republican rivals and training his fire on Barack Obama, avoiding the frantic chase after shiny objects and the frazzled, defensive, and reactive tendencies that previously bedeviled him.
On one reading, to be sure, making a concerted, late-stage effort to take Iowa would be consistent with the new, non-sweaty-’pits Mitt. It would be bold. It would be decisive. It would be opportunistic, in the best sense of the word. But it would also introduce an unpredictable variable to a race in which virtually every constant so far has worked to Romney’s advantage. Is there really a new Romney? The answer remains unclear. But if there is, surely he’ll be able to recognize and resist a briar patch when he sees one—even if it happens to reside amid thousands of square miles of cornfields.