John Gizzi in Iowa: Romney's Parting Shot

Des Moines, Iowa — It was Mitt Romney‘s final shot at the national media, as well as his infantry of workers from Iowa and those who came from other states to help their presidential favorite win the Republican presidential caucuses here in the Hawkeye State.

More than 650 Romney enthusiasts as well as national reporters covering the former Massachusetts governor jammed into the main HyVee Corporate Headquarters here in Western St. Des Moines for the presidential hopeful’s caucus-eve rally.

Romney’s remarks were positive, recalling how he greeted the casket of a solider killed in Iraq while he was governor and praising President Bush for keeping America safe from another attack over the last six years. As he has for the past few days, Romney refrained from any mention of or reference to leading rival Mike Huckabee (who was on the West Coast taping an appearance on “The Tonight Show”).

What was perhaps more telling than his remarks was the qualified response from his high command to whether Romney will emerge triumphant from the Iowa caucuses. Where local operatives such as Polk County Romney co-chairman Connie Schmett were openly voicing confidence about a Romney victory, the national leaders of “Team Romney” were far more guarded in their predictions.

“If we win here tomorrow and win in New Hampshire, we go on to Michigan [and its primary January 15th,” Massachusetts GOP National Committeeman Ron Kaufman told me before the Romney rally], “If we lose here tomorrow and lose New Hampshire, we go on to Michigan. And then South Carolina and then Nevada. And we’re the only campaign that’s competitive in all five of those states.”

One thing he was certain of, Kaufman added, “is that life will certainly be different on Friday.”

Asked if Romney will win, another national Romney operative, former Rep. and Romney policy point man Vin Weber (R.-Minn.) told me: “Yes–narrowly.”

The cautiousness of Kaufman and Weber was echoed by the top two Iowans on the Romney team. Doug Cross, former chief of staff to former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, would only say: “It’s gonna be close.” Gentry Collins, the full-time Romney campaign manager in Iowa, said “I hope we win in Iowa, and New Hampshire, but we don’t have to.” Recalling how Romney was trailing Huckabee by as much as 22 percentage points in one statewide poll two weeks ago and had now fought the Arkansas man to a standstill, Collins told me that “if any candidate comes within a few points of winning, it’s a victory.”

The Romney rally included many Iowans, and quite a few supporters from around the country: Bay Buchanan, former top operative for the late presidential candidacy of Tom Tancredo (both have since boarded the Romney bandwagon), veteran Texas conservative activist Dianna Denman, and Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R.-Mich.)

Tancredo Put Illegal
Immigration Issue on Iowa GOP Map

At a time when polls show more than a third of Iowa Republicans consider illegal immigration their most pressing concern and Republican presidential hopefuls increasingly took a harder line on dealing with undocumented aliens in the U.S., Hawkeye State GOP leaders give credit for putting the issue on the political map to the “man who wasn’t there” — Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, who withdrew from the GOP presidential race just over two weeks ago.

“There’s no question about it,” Des Moines attorney Kim Schmett, a past Polk County (Des Moines) GOP chairman, told me last night, “One person felt strongly about the issue, kept talking about it, and finally put illegal immigration at the top of the agenda here, and that’s Tom Tancredo.”

Over dinner at Biaggi’s Restaurant in Western Des Moines, Schmett, a onetime chief of staff to former Rep. Greg Ganske (R.-Iowa), and other local party leaders all agreed that without the Colorado lawmaker continually talking about illegal immigration, one would not be finding Fred Thompson and other remaining GOP presidential hopefuls drawing their loudest applause with calls for building a fence along the U.S. border with Mexico.

“Tancredo had a big part in making it a key issue here,” agreed State Rep. Ralph Watts of Adel, who said that illegal immigrants have been attracted to Iowa and particularly Sioux City because of available jobs in local meat-packing plants. With a dramatic influx of immigrants — many of whom have come to Sioux City and other cities illegally — Iowans have grown “very concerned about preserving our borders,” according to Watts.

Schmett also told me that Iowa’s Republican Rep. Steve King “provided a great supporting cast to Tom Tancredo” by standing and appearing with him when he drove home the issue of illegal immigration. Tancredo has since withdrawn from the presidential race to endorse Mitt Romney, while King recently gave his support to Thompson.