In Iowa, Mitt Romney peaking at just the right time

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa -- Newt Gingrich has been trying to damage Mitt Romney in Iowa by casting him as a "Massachusetts moderate" whose views are not in line with the largely conservative electorate of the Hawkeye state.

Based on the comments of some of the 500 or so people who crowded into a plastic factory in North Liberty, Iowa on Wednesday to hear the former Massachusetts governor speak, it isn't working.

"A lot of things he's changed his mind on, and that's okay," said Gregg Pospisil of Mount Vernon, who describes himself as very conservative. "I think where he came from he had to be more liberal...but he's a lot more conservative than people think."

Kelvin Bronner of Cedar Rapids said he come around to the former Massachusetts governor in the last few days, following a telephone town hall with the candidate. He said his concerns about Gingrich have been amplified by the negative ads and mailers against the former House speaker - many from a pro-Romney super PAC - that have been blanketing the state.

"I think some of the ads that the other candidates run on Newt, some of his baggage - I think there's a lot to overcome there," he said.

A new poll this week showed Romney leading the field in Iowa with 25 percent support from likely caucus-goers, followed by Ron Paul at 22 percent, the surging Rick Santorum at 16 percent and the freefalling Gingrich at 14 percent. (Gingrich is down nearly 20 points in less than a month.)

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Romney has carefully calibrated Iowa expectations after betting big on Iowa in his 2008 presidential run - and losing badly to the underfunded Mike Huckabee, who consolidated social conservative support. Until recently he has spent little face time and money in the state, in part to keep the press from unleashing negative stories in the event he doesn't do well here.

And he had every reason to expect he would not. Iowa is a tough fit for Romney, who many conservatives distrust because of his past moderation on a variety of issues. Yet Romney now finds himself in position to win Iowa (or come in second to Paul, which is almost as good as a win since Paul is not seen as a strong contender for the nomination) and then move on to a victory in New Hampshire, where polls show he holds a wide lead. That would put him in position to potentially lock up the GOP nomination far earlier than anyone expected, particularly in light of the long-held perception that Romney is a weak frontrunner.

Romney likens Gingrich to Lucille Ball
Mitt Romney

Romney has benefited in the 2012 cycle from the fact that no candidate has consolidated the support of Iowa voters. In 2008, he had the support of 25 percent of caucus-goers - the same level of support polls suggest he now holds. But while 25 percent was seen as an embarrassment four years ago in light of Huckabee's nine point victory, it may well be good enough to win this time around.

In North Liberty Wednesday, those who had come to hear Romney speak - his crowds were far larger than any of the other candidates crisscrossing the state, with the occasional exception of Paul - said their support for Romney was all about electability.

"Let's just stay focused on getting Obama out," said Karen Christensen of Coralville, who called herself a "conservative, and a Christian." Asked about candidates like Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, she said, "I'm listening to all of them, but we need somebody who can debate Obama, and really get him one-on-one and really throw back at him all that he's doing wrong with America."

"I think electability, probably Romney's the most electable," added Terri Bronner. "The goal is to beat the opponent."

A woman named Karen, who did not want to give her last name, said of Bachmann, "She's a sweet lady but I don't think she can pull it off." Asked if Romney's Mormonism is a concern for her, she said no.

"I don't think he's going to try to make me a Mormon," she said.

Romney, who was dressed in jeans and a white dress shirt with no tie, opened his remarks by talking about "going steady" with his wife Ann, who was also on hand for the town hall event. For Alta Cook of Iowa City - "more of a conservative, and Chirstian, too" - the candidate's personal life is a big part of his appeal.

"He's a great family man," she said. "He's been married to his lovely wife for many years and has helped her through her health issues, and she's had several. And he's also raised his sons and is very proud of the grandchildren. So he has values that I respect personally."

Cook also lauded Romney for being willing to "praise America and stand up for America which is not what our president does.

Romney, who named his campaign book "No Apologies," understands the value of that perception. In his remarks Wednesday, he discussed his love of the country, talked of a gust of wind behind an American flag, said "I love this country" and got perhaps his biggest applause by saying, "it's a free people pursuing their dreams that make America great."

Romney has the aura of a winner at the moment, one who perhaps can't quite believe how things are shaping up at this point. After all, the primary battle has seen a series of candidates rise above the seemingly unloved Romney in polls only to fall back down to earth. In response to a reporter Wednesday, Romney stressed that he didn't know what was going to happen in Iowa - but there was no denying his enthusiasm.

"I can't join the expectations game, but I can tell you that I feel pretty good about the support I'm receiving here in Iowa and New Hampshire, for that matter," he said, "and it looks like we're gonna be off to a good start."