As Iowa looms, playing field suddenly shifts for Romney

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses a town hall meeting Saturday in Charleston, South Carolina.

Story highlights

  • Romney's team is stepping up efforts in Iowa and South Carolina
  • Romney wins the endorsement of the Des Moines Register
  • GOP strategist: "Iowa has become a Newt vs. Romney death match"
  • In South Carolina, the picture for Romney is murkier
Mitt Romney is returning to safe harbor on Tuesday, kicking off a week-long tour of New Hampshire, his early state stronghold.
But with his team now stepping up efforts in Iowa and South Carolina -- two states he largely avoided for much of the year -- Romney's playing field has suddenly expanded beyond his New Hampshire citadel, increasing the stakes for his campaign across the early-state playing field.
Romney is now in full-blown campaign mode in both Iowa and New Hampshire, spending heavily on television ads and devoting more time to public rallies and media appearances.
And in South Carolina, Romney is moving aggressively to capitalize on a high-profile endorsement from Gov. Nikki Haley, spending the weekend campaigning with her across the state.
The heightened activity across all three states is normal at this late stage of the primary campaign, said Romney strategist Stuart Stevens.
"You get more engaged in all these races the closer you get to the election," Stevens told CNN. "I think that's going to be a pattern that's going to repeat itself throughout the process between now and whenever the process ends."
Romney has made just six trips to Iowa this year, after spending roughly $10 million campaigning in the state in 2008 only to finish second in the caucuses.
Romney and his staff have been wary of Iowa's socially conservative electorate, and his lack of time in the state has prompted grumbling among some of his 2008 supporters.
But with the marathon GOP presidential debate season now in the rear view mirror, and with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich threatening his long-planned march to the nomination, Romney has suddenly shifted into campaign mode.
"The Romney campaign seems to have been quietly organizing for the better part of a year, and now they are going public," said Jim Dyke, a South Carolina-based Republican strategist not affiliated with any campaign.
In Iowa, Romney and his allies are pumping millions of dollars' worth of advertising and mail into households, both promoting his campaign and savaging Gingrich.
Over the weekend, Romney won the endorsement of the Des Moines Register, which cited his "sobriety, wisdom and judgment" while also taking a knife to the candidacies of his top two Iowa rivals, Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
The most recent average of Iowa polls by RealClearPolitics placed Gingrich in first with 23%, followed by Paul with 18.7% and Romney at 17%.
Republicans in Iowa doubt that the blessing of a left-leaning editorial board will sway many Republican voters, but the endorsement has re-focused attention on Romney's long-dormant campaign in the state.
The question Republicans are now asking is whether Romney's late burst of activity raises expectations for him in Iowa, where he could deliver a knockout blow against Gingrich by winning the caucuses on January 3.
Opinions differ on whether Romney needs an outright Iowa victory, but there is consensus among Republicans that he must derail Gingrich and finish in the top three.
"Iowa has become a Newt vs. Romney death match, and Romney is winning for the moment," said Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist and CNN contributor who worked on Romney's 2008 campaign.
Dave Roederer, a longtime Iowa GOP operative and the chairman of John McCain's 2008 campaign in the state, said the Romney campaign and "Restore Our Future PAC," an independent pro-Romney group, "are spending serious cash in the state they weren't playing in."
"He has raised the stakes and the only rationale I can come up with is Romney was falling and they decided getting fourth in Iowa was not survivable," Roederer said of the former Massachusetts governor. "I also think Newt became an unexpected threat and they decided he had to be damaged before New Hampshire."
Steve Grubbs, another veteran operative who chaired Herman Cain's campaign in the Hawkeye State, said his mailbox has been flooded with glossy fliers assailing Gingrich's conservative bona fides.
The attacks on the former House speaker are beginning to take a toll, he said.
"I am sensing a small Romney surge right now as I visit with people on the ground," Grubbs told CNN. "I think his expectations are now raised in Iowa as everyone expects him to now finish in the top three."
In South Carolina, where the primary race typically does not take on its final shape until after New Hampshire weighs in, the picture for Romney is murkier.
Romney recently began airing his first television ads in the state, and he spent the weekend campaigning in three of the South Carolina's biggest media markets with Haley at his side.
The tea party-aligned governor also lent her voice to a wave of Romney robocalls that hit South Carolina answering machines on Friday.
For the moment, South Carolina is not as crucial to Romney's fortunes as Iowa and New Hampshire appear to be.
Romney finished fourth in the state's primary in 2008 and voters there continue to be skeptical of his northern pedigree and core conservative convictions.
But Palmetto State GOP insiders seem to agree that Romney has not laid enough political groundwork in the state should he need to a strong showing in the January 21 primary.
Romney has just three paid staffers in the state and one campaign office in West Columbia.
Gingrich, who leads Romney by a wide margin in the most recent polls, has five offices in the state and 12 paid staffers.
Haley gave Romney a coveted endorsement, but she was elected in 2010 without any sort of political machine that can now be handed over to Romney.
The South Carolina donor community has also complained privately about Romney's hands-off approach to the state.
A leading financial backer of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's campaign in South Carolina said Romney's campaign should have been reaching out long ago to Huntsman supporters frustrated with his standing in the polls.
"I would certainly consider moving to Gov. Romney," said the donor, who did not want to be identified disparaging the Huntsman campaign.
Peter Brown, a leading Republican bundler in the state who supported Romney in 2008, has been critical of this year's GOP field and is currently not supporting any candidate.
Brown agreed to host a Romney campaign event at his sign-making company in Columbia in mid-November, but said he has heard little from the Romney team since then.
"Until the Haley endorsement, I thought the plan was to not even play in South Carolina," Brown told CNN. "It appears that they plan to run a national election instead of a state-by-state game plan. To me, that's frustrating."
But a national primary campaign is exactly what the Romney campaign has been preparing for in recent weeks, which may render the outcomes of the early state contests less important than in past cycles.
"Our whole thing has been that we didn't have a strategy that we needed to win one state, we needed to win the necessary delegates," said Stevens, the Romney strategist. "It's how you are able to go the distance in these things and get the delegates. We are very comfortable with that. It's not a slingshot strategy."
"We are ready to go through August," Stevens added.