Romney Deepens Core Support Before Iowa Caucuses

On the final full day of campaigning before the Iowa caucuses, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney appeared at a series of rallies Monday. His rallies grew in size and enthusiasm over the course of the day. Romney holds a slim lead over Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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And I'm Linda Wertheimer. The Republican presidential candidates have logged thousands of miles in Iowa, shaking hands, making speeches, seeking support. Tonight, they'll hear how it worked. Mitt Romney's campaign invested in Iowa, when it began to look like he might have a chance of winning. Millions of dollars later, he holds a slim lead over Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.

NPR's Ari Shapiro was along for Romney's last full day of campaigning.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Iowans take pride in their Midwestern pragmatism, and that pragmatism came across in several interviews with Romney supporters on the last full day of the campaign in Iowa. At a rally in Davenport, there was no celebrity star-worship or screams of adoration. Ask people here why they're voting for Romney, and they all tend to give the same answer.

MARY KAY SIMMS: I think he can beat Barack Obama. I think that's the biggest issue.

BOB SARTOR: I think he's electable. I think that's probably it.

NANCY RUDNICK: He has the ability to turn this country around and to beat Obama.

SHAPIRO: Which of those two is more important to you right now?

RUDNICK: Beating Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: That was Mary Kay Simms, Bob Sartor and Nancy Rudnick.

The event here at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds was only about half-full, though it was 8 AM on a holiday, and the gusting winter blasts did not exactly encourage people to venture out.

Forget winning Iowa. Romney spoke as though he had already won the Republican presidential nomination and was going toe-to-toe with President Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MITT ROMNEY: I look at this president, realize that he just doesn't know it's - what has to be done to get this country on track again. You know, when he was just a new elected president, he went on the "Today Show," and he said if I can't get this economy turned around in three years, I'll be looking at a one-term proposition. I'm here to collect, all right?

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: The former Massachusetts governor did not mention his rivals once. After the rally, campaign strategist Eric Fehrnstrom told me that's because President Obama's economic record is what prompted Romney to enter this race.

ERIC FEHRNDTROM: Look, it's not Newt Gingrich's fault that there are 25 million Americans looking for work. That's not the fault of Ron Paul or Michele Bachmann. That's the fault of the incumbent president.

SHAPIRO: And is there a sense that even if Ron Paul or Rick Santorum takes first place in Iowa, in the long term, that's not necessarily a terrible thing for the Romney campaign?

FEHRNDTROM: I think we're surprised to find ourselves in hunt here in Iowa. Back in the spring, you know, we didn't think that we'd do that well in Iowa, but based on what we've been seeing and hearing over the past several weeks, we've decided to invest more time by the candidate here. But I think whether we win or achieve something less in Iowa, we've built an organization that can go the long distance to Tampa.

SHAPIRO: Tampa is where the Republican nominating convention will take place this summer. The road there leads through towns like Dubuque, where Romney introduced some of his sons and his wife Ann to a lunchtime crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ROMNEY: Four years ago, I standing here, she standing there, and suddenly her half of the stage collapsed in Dubuque at the Best Western Hotel. And she went down on the ground, landed on her backside. And I said: How are you, honey? A little later she said well, I fell on da butt in Dubuque. So...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: That's not a bad metaphor for what happened to Romney himself four years ago. Iowa helped derail his path to the nomination in 2008. Now, in a state that has always favored evangelicals and social conservatives, this former governor of Massachusetts seems to have more than a fighting chance. He focused his last day before the caucuses on counties where he did well four years ago, in hopes of deepening his core of support rather than expanding the size of the map here.

At an asphalt company in Marion, he stood under a banner saying: Believe in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ROMNEY: I want to see America united. I watch a president who's become the great divider, the great complainer, the great excuse-giver, the great blamer. I want to have an America that comes together. I'm an optimist. I believe in the future of America. I'm not a pessimist.

SHAPIRO: The room was packed, and cheers frequently interrupted this speech. In fact, his rallies grew in size and enthusiasm over the course of the day. Mitt Romney hopes that momentum will culminate tonight in the first win of the 2012 presidential race.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Des Moines.

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