BETTENDORF, Iowa - Although Mitt Romney has visited Iowa only once since launching his campaign for president in 2012, some of the state's voters are giving him a second look.
In recent interviews several Iowa GOP leaders said that they are seeing movement toward Romney, even though the support seems more a matter of pragmatism than enthusiasm.
The state's social and religious conservatives, who dominate caucus voting, don't like Romney's moderate record on issues, particularly his embrace of a health care law in Massachusetts that served as the model for the Obama administration's much-maligned health care plan.
Even in staunchly conservative Sioux County - which former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won handily in 2008 - voters are considering the candidate they snubbed four years ago.
"A number of people I've talked to seem to be gravitating a little bit back to Romney," said Jim Plagge, treasurer of the Sioux County Republican Party. "I think more by default. I think it's not like, 'Okay he's my guy,' but it's more of, 'Well, these other ones don't seem to be doing it. I want to win. He seems to be the best opportunity to win.'"
Romney is benefiting from some still-evolving political math: With the campaigns of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minn. Rep. Michele Bachmann losing momentum, and would-be spoilers New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin announcing this week that they are staying out of the race, Iowa evangelical conservatives (who make up about 60 percent of caucus participants) could well split their votes among the far-right field, which also includes businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania; and libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
If that happens, the 40 percent share of less-ideological Republicans could end up with Romney, allowing him to eke out a win, or a respectable second-place.
In Black Hawk County, which contains Bachmann's hometown of Waterloo, Republican Chairman Garland "Mac" McDonald said of Romney, "He does have a support base here. And I'm not sure it's not because he's the most presidential-looking right now."
As a candidate for president four years ago, Romney spent a great deal of time and money in Iowa only to lose to Huckabee. This time, his strategy for the early primary states has been to focus intensely on New Hampshire's more moderate and independent primary voters. He has remained largely absent from Iowa, except for two-day swing in August.
But candidates once thought to have a better shot in Iowa have fizzled. After winning the Iowa Republican straw poll in August, Bachmann's viability has been hurt by a series of unpresidential-like gaffes. Perry, who for a time looked like Bachmann's replacement among Iowa's conservatives, has lost ground with them for his moderate positions on immigration. Jim McDonald, a potential caucus-goer, said at a gun show in Des Moines, "I won't vote for somebody that's anti-gun or pro-immigration."
Possibly sensing a renewed opening, the Romney campaign dispatched the candidate's wife, Ann Romney, on a three-day swing through the state this week. At a breakfast in Bettendorf, the former first lady of Massachusetts praised the people of Iowa, while also making a pitch for their support.
"Iowa is important. We love the people of Iowa," she told the crowd of about 30. "A lot of you, I know, were involved with us last time and helped us in the caucuses last time, and so we're asking you to go out and not just take yourself, but your neighbor and your friends and your church-going friends and everyone else that you've got that you can get to those caucuses and send a message that Iowa still remembers us and that it's an important process."
Yet, among Iowans who have decided to support Romney, there is frequently a lack of enthusiasm about him. State Rep. Linda Miller of Bettendorf, who endorsed Romney in 2007, told the crowd at the Ann Romney event that it took her a while to get back on the bandwagon. "This time around it took a little longer because I think everybody wanted to have some miraculous candidate that did everything for everybody all the time," she said. "And as we all know, that's just not the way politics works."
Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford said Romney's biggest problem in the state, if he decides to compete there, will be the enthusiasm gap. "Romney has some support here, but it's not the populist support," he said.
The Iowa GOP caucus, he said, has become mainly an event dominated by the Tea Party and evangelical wings of the party, the kinds of voters more inclined to be excited by a Perry or a Bachmann. "Even though there is a moderate or traditionally conservative dimension of the Republican Party here, it's a real risk for him," Goldford said.
Jeff Jorgensen is the Republican chairman of Pottawattamie County, which takes in the city of Council Bluffs near the Nebraska border. He has endorsed Cain for president. Jorgensen said, "Governor Romney - he's, you know, he's a good Republican. He's of course an Eastern Republican. But even among his supporters, there's just no enthusiasm out there for him. I just don't sense that. ... People aren't motivated to get out there and do the things they need to do to get him elected. They need to be enthused. They need to be energized."