COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa – Mitt Romney is not known for the passion he inspires. And as he stands awkwardly before a crowd of Republicans in the crucial first caucus state, you get the sense that Iowa voters like him even less than Republicans elsewhere.
At Bayliss Park Hall, an ornate Victorian mansion in this Missouri River City, the former governor fought for applause on lines attacking President Barack Obama's record and highlighting his own, lowering the handheld microphone and smiling until he elicited the response he wanted.
"Corn counts an amber wave of grain," he said to muted applause, part of his new riff of campaign lines designed to emphasize the candidate's love for America.
Romney abruptly decided not to take questions leaving staffers holding audience microphones baffled. Instead he opted to talk to some voters on a rope line — far from the town hall experience many Iowans are used to. Many of the attendees weren’t sold on Romney and a handful were upset they couldn’t ask questions of the candidate in a public forum.
It’s an odd scene, only overshadowed by somewhat surprising fact that Romney is heavily contesting the Iowa in the first place.
Until late November his campaign was avoiding the caucuses at all costs, wary of a repeat of 2008, when Romney went all-in and fell short.
Romney’s strategy changed when Newt Gingrich’s surge began, with his communications director telling reporters in later November that he’s in it to win it. Over the past five weeks Romney has devoted an increasing amount of time and resources to wooing the fickle voters here, who have embraced and abandoned candidates at an astounding pace.
If he wins the Iowa Caucuses — once a considered almost impossible, and now a distinct possibility — it won’t be because he’s the best campaigner or the most ideologically in step with Iowa Republicans. He wins only if the conservative vote remains split, and it would undoubtedly be less decisive than his expected margin in New Hampshire.
So why is Romney even here?
The upside is obviously attractive — a win in Iowa, followed by victory in New Hampshire is unprecedented in modern politics, and would essentially seal the nomination on January 10th. Even a second place finish to the unelectable Ron Paul is a victory.
The rise of Rick Santorum was a bit unexpected in Romneyland, which had become cocky about their chances of defeating Gingrich. Now a loss to Rick Santorum appears at least possible, drawing worrying comparisons to his ill-fated 2008 campaign.
Because while Santorum may be an unlikely nominee, losing – as Hillary Clinton and Romney found in 2008 – is losing. And losing is dangerous.