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Why Romney Has No Choice but to Go for the Kill in Iowa

Even as the political world awaits the further unfolding of Herman Cain’s handling of sexual harassment allegations, one of his rivals is on the brink of making a strategic decision that could have an even greater impact on the Republican presidential nominating contest, and on the general election as well. Will Mitt Romney go for a “quick kill” by focusing his vast resources on a serious bid to win the Iowa Caucuses just two months from now? Or will he stick to his original plan of beginning his campaign with an almost certain win in New Hampshire, at the risk of allowing someone—likely Cain or Rick Perry—to begin consolidating conservative anti-Romney sentiment with an Iowa victory? 

The consequences of Romney’s decision, it turns out, go beyond the strategic question of how best to win the GOP nomination. It could also determine whether the nominating contest will turn into an extended ideological slugfest that poorly positions Romney to face off against Barack Obama next year. Indeed, the real possibility that a drawn-out contest will drag Romney even further to the right should be a considerable factor in his decision-making process—one that, if he is wise, should prompt him to take a serious look at rolling the dice yet again in Iowa.

As New York’s John Heilemann recently explained, Team Romney has carefully handled Iowa in a way that makes it possible for the candidate to go either way, but he’s now reached the failsafe point:

These mixed signals are neither incidental nor accidental. They’re reflective of a deep ambivalence in Romneyworld about its approach to the Hawkeye State. All year long, the campaign has debated internally whether and how hard to compete in the caucuses. Every option carries both significant upsides and substantial risks. But now, with the voting in Iowa just two months away, decision time is here.

The argument against a Romney commitment to Iowa can be summed up in one word: 2008. At this point in that cycle four years ago, a Romney win in the caucuses, giving him momentum to beat Rudy Giuliani and John McCain in New Hampshire, seemed all but certain. A University of Iowa poll on October 29, 2007 showed him with 36 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers, with Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, and Fred Thompson all bunched in the low teens. He had vast money (eventually spending $10 million in Iowa) and organization (he had won the Ames Straw Poll in the summer), and moreover, was positioned as the “movement conservative” in the field at a time when ideologues had big doubts about the other candidates. Within a month, however, his lead was gone, and his loss to the low-budget, high-energy Huckabee campaign derailed his path to the nomination.

In every respect other than the disarray of the current field, Romney is in a less enviable position in Iowa today, with polling support in the 20s, a skeleton organization, very little time spent on the ground by the candidate, and most importantly, a reputation as a flip-flopping moderate in a cycle when the GOP base has turned sharply to the right and feels no particular reason to settle for an impure nominee. But then again, who, exactly, is going to beat Romney this time? Rick Perry has lost two-thirds of his support, in Iowa and nationally, since September, and the man who took most of that support, Herman Cain, has less organization in Iowa than Romney, and has been making serious mistakes on almost a daily basis since surging in the polls.   

It’s an exquisite dilemma for Romney, who certainly has the resources to make an eight-week blitz in Iowa. But for all the risks involved in the “quick-kill” strategy, what should ultimately sway him to make the plunge is the big advantage a short primary season would give him in preparing for the general election.

By advantages, I don’t mean it would save Romney a lot of money, though it would, or that it would give him more time to mobilize unhappy conservatives in a holy crusade to beat Obama, though it would do that as well. More important than both of these factors, the “quick kill” would enable him to escape the intense ideological pressures of a nominating contest where Romney, in particular, will be required to prove his conservative bona fides constantly, at the expense of his general election appeal. 

The gap between the outlook of the GOP’s conservative base and the general electorate is large this year and the nominating contest is widening it still further each day. At GOP candidate debates, it is taken for granted that the very idea of universal health care is an abomination, deflationary monetary and fiscal policy is a great idea during a recession, Social Security and Medicare need to be drastically overhauled, paying attention to income inequality is “class warfare,” and every instrument of government should be bent to the task of further engorging the wealth of “job creators.” Just in the last two weeks, Cain and Perry have been competing for the “most conservative” mantle by trumpeting deeply regressive tax overhaul plans and swearing their fealty to the most extreme anti-abortion sentiments. Perry has already made it plain that his main weapon against Romney will be the constant assertion that his rival is secretly and not-so secretly a liberal, sure to push “Obama Lite” policies. Right-wing litmus-test titans like Jim DeMint of South Carolina will exact as high a price as possible for their weighty endorsements. 

This is a very dangerous environment for the ultimate nominee, and particularly for Romney, who has virtually no stored capital of trust with the very voters who will determine his fate. Up until now, he has only made two big concessions to the pressure to turn hard-right: his support for the Cut, Cap and Balance deficit reduction proposal (an explicit condition for DeMint’s support) and his strategic decision to cynically blast Rick Perry for sympathy towards illegal immigrants. If he does not essentially win the nomination before the contest gets into the southern states, how many more ideological gestures of this sort will he have to make?

More generally, a long primary season is a very bad thing for the Republican Party. At this point, Barack Obama’s best, and perhaps only, strategy for re-election is to make this a “two futures” choice, in which the extremism of the GOP gets as much attention as the current state of the economy. Nothing will play into this strategy quite like months of Republican candidates barnstorming through Tea Party-dominated state primaries accusing each other of being reasonable instead of right.

The “quick-kill” scenario may be the only way out of this trap, and only Mitt Romney can trigger it by hunkering down for an intense holiday-season drive through the right-to-life fundraising banquets and local-supporter potluck dinners of Iowa. We’ll soon know whether he has the stomach for it.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.