THE RACE for the Republican presidential nomination is looking a lot less competitive than it once did, with Mitt Romney appearing well ahead. But one place where that’s not true is in Iowa, which holds the first caucus two months from today. Early on, Iowa flirted with irrelevance, as top names like Romney stayed away, mainstream candidates like Tim Pawlenty flopped, and the state’s socially conservative Republicans swooned over a series of fringe figures, including Michele Bachmann, who won an important straw poll in August.
Iowa’s place as a springboard to the nomination — think Barack Obama — seemed in jeopardy; its caucus-goers appeared likely to back someone unacceptable to the rest of the country and thereby ratify Romney’s decision not to compete.
Suddenly, all that has changed. A new Des Moines Register poll shows Romney in a statistical tie for first place with Herman Cain, with the rest of the field far behind. It wouldn’t be right to say that Iowa Republicans have been seized by sobriety or centrism. Rather, most of the Tea Party favorites who once polled so highly have either fallen back (like Bachmann and Rick Perry) or never got in the race (Sarah Palin, Donald Trump). And Cain’s status as a front-runner, in Iowa and elsewhere, looks precarious after this week’s news that two women who worked under him while he was the head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s received settlements after claiming that he had sexually harassed them.
All of this leaves Romney in an unexpected position of having crept to the front of the pack in Iowa without really trying — and he could soon find himself there alone. On its face, this would seem a stroke of good fortune, and many commentators are treating it as such. Were he to win Iowa, and a week later New Hampshire, where he holds a commanding lead, it’s hard to imagine anybody challenging him.
But the strategy of avoiding Iowa and taking a longer view looks no worse than it did six months ago, and changing tack now could wind up hurting him. While it’s true that his absence could allow a serious contender to emerge - most likely Perry because of his $15 million war chest and social views — there’s reason to believe that Romney’s strength could be illusory and a win more difficult than it might appear.
Romney’s support in Iowa has been remarkably steady, not just for months but for years — he consistently draws around 25 percent of likely voters. That’s true in the new Register poll (22 percent) just as it was in the 2008 caucus, when he ended up with a disappointing 26 percent and finished second to Mike Huckabee, despite going all out and pouring an estimated $10 million into the race. Romney’s Iowa backers appear to be sticking with him, which is certainly good news for his campaign. But if history is any guide, the temptation to make a sudden commitment of time and money in hopes of increasing his support and cinching a win is a fool’s bet.
Of all the scenarios before Romney, his attempting to win Iowa and failing is surely the worst one, since it would shatter the aura of inevitability that has slowly begun to gather round him. It would instantly summon up the last election and his failure to meet expectations. Worst of all, it could anoint another candidate “king slayer,’’ just as it did Obama after he defeated Hillary Clinton in Iowa. And Romney’s support among Republicans doesn’t nearly match Clinton’s among Democrats, so he has a narrower margin for error.
Romney’s campaign is built for the long haul. He has more money, experience, and stature than anyone else, a point underscored in every debate. The wisdom of his strategy is that it takes into account conservatives’ coolness toward him — they’ll never fall for Romney as they have for Cain and Palin — and seeks simply to outlast his opponents. His advantages are such that he could probably prevail even if Perry or someone else wins Iowa, so long as the victory isn’t seen as a triumph over Romney.
If, on the other hand, he succumbs to temptation, the “good news’’ out of Iowa could quickly become bad news for him.
Joshua Green is a national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek. His column appears regularly in the Globe.