Mitt Romney quietly opens Iowa office

DES MOINES, IA - AUGUST 11: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (C) introduces himself to voters at the Iowa State Fair August 11, 2011 in Des Moines, Iowa. Romney was a the fair ahead of Saturday's Iowa Straw Poll to greet voters and engage in traditional Iowa campaigning rituals. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Chip Somodevilla
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney introduces himself to voters at the Iowa State Fair August 11, 2011 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Mitt Romney is skipping a big Republican presidential candidates' forum in Iowa Saturday, but that doesn't mean he's skipping out on the Hawkeye state.

The former Massachusetts governor - who has kept a deliberately low profile in a state that gave him a rude stumble coming out of the box in his 2008 presidential effort - quietly opened a campaign office in Des Moines this week.

While some of Romney's rivals have made photo opportunities of such headquarters' openings, Team Romney is not going out of its way to publicize its Iowa beachhead.

Romney's Iowa team consists of his top Iowa strategist, Dave Kochel; state director Sara Craig; and three field staffers, all of whom have been on board for some time.

This is in stark contrast to his office in Manchester, New Hampshire, with a staff nearly double in size - though the Granite State is half as large as its Hawkeye counterpart. Romney is putting a big emphasis on New Hampshire, where he's practically a favorite son. As governor of neighboring Massachusetts, he was a familiar presence on the state's TV screens and he owns a vacation home in the Granite State.

In Iowa, Romney has been such an infrequent visitor that Gov. Terry Branstad, a fellow Republican, has publicly chided Romney for his truancy.

Four years ago, Romney was badly burned in Iowa, finishing a distant second to Mike Huckabee despite having poured resources into the state for more than a year.

The Mormon ex-governor has had difficulty gaining traction with evangelical voters, a key constituency among Iowa caucus-goers.

The Iowa forum that Romney is skipping on Saturday ­ while six of his chief rivals attend ­ is sponsored one of the state's leading evangelical groups.

Even so, a respected poll of GOP caucus-goers by the Des Moines Register showed Romney within striking distance of a win.

And, despite a two-month absence from Iowa between August and October, Romney has been slowly ramping up in the state. He has been to Iowa twice in the last month, and is heading back again on Wednesday.

During Romney's last trip to the state, on November 7, professional cameras shot his appearance, leading to speculation that he was filming a commercial and will be on the air there shortly. The campaign has yet to confirm this, and Romney commercials have not yet appeared on air anywhere in the country.

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