Could Romney Win Iowa?

A Public Policy Polling release from Tuesday has the Iowa race looking like this:

Ron Paul 24%

Mitt Romney 20%

Newt Gingrich 13%

Michele Bachmann 11%

Rick Perry 10%

Rick Santorum 10%

Jon Huntsman 4%

Buddy Roemer 2%

It looks like just about everyone is surging, except Gingrich, who has been sliding badly, and Jon Huntsman, who is perched precariously above the Sarlaac pit of the Buddy Roemer campaign and kicking away the tentacles.

Romney’s actually in the lead with Republicans in Iowa by 2%, but Democrats and independents can vote in the caucuses too, and Paul has a huge 39%-12% lead with them, plus a sizable advantage in the intensity of support, and a growing expectation among Iowa voters that he’ll win the caucus.  However, Iowa polls are notoriously volatile.  Rick Santorum’s got the best overall favorability numbers, and is a popular second choice, which could work to his benefit if Iowans conclude other campaigns are a lost cause and begin flocking to him.

Could Romney still find a way to win Iowa?  Politico reports he’s making a strong home-stretch effort, after having treated Iowa somewhat indifferently when it didn’t look like he had much chance of winning:

The candidate launched a bus tour Tuesday and suggested on a conference call with Iowans this week that he’ll be in the state for New Year’s Eve. After a solid ad buy in Iowa for a month totaling more than $1.1 million, Romney’s camp has upped its spending in the Quad Cities market, sources familiar with the purchase told POLITICO. His team has dropped a collection of mail pieces, both positive about Romney and negative about the perceived closest alternative — Newt Gingrich.

In another clear sign he’s playing to win, he has quietly moved a handful of staffers from his headquarters in Boston and in other states earlier this month to give his skeleton Iowa staff a needed boost. And he’s cycling in a platoon of high-profile surrogates to rally around him in the state at stump stops and on talk radio, including Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. John Thune, Rep. Aaron Schock and former Sens. Norm Coleman and Jim Talent.

It’s an effort that could backfire if Romney ends up doing poorly in Iowa, as it would be tough for him to play the reduced-expectations game.  His Iowa supporters have an excellent grasp of their tactical situation, although listening to them talk about it is bound to make conservative hackles rise:

“I think we’re going to do better than most people expect us to do,” said state Rep. Renee Schulte, a top Cedar Rapids Romney supporter.

Schulte hesitated about predicting an outright win because of the many variables — Paul’s turnout, Rick Santorum’s potential, the weather — still hanging over the race. But she noted the difference between this year and the 2008 caucuses.

“The only way we were going to lose was if the right coalesced, and that’s exactly what happened [with Mike Huckabee],” said Schulte. “But this time Bachmann, Santorum and Perry are still out campaigning aggressively, so if [conservatives] go three ways, we’re going to do better.”

Speaking on background, another Romney loyalist with close ties to the candidate dispensed with the expectation-setting.

“That is becoming more likely,” said the loyalist when asked if Romney could win the caucuses outright. “We’ve been lucky and good. The campaign plan was always to adjust activity based on what we were seeing on ground but keep expectations down. But between the positive news for us of late and negatives for our rivals, we’re finishing in a good place.”

Winning Iowa is not a precondition for eventual victory, although it would be great for Romney if he could roll into South Carolina and Florida with both Iowa and New Hampshire wins under his belt.  The RealClearPolitics polling average has Romney up 17 points in New Hampshire, with Gingrich and Paul just about tied for second place.  Gingrich is then up 16 points over Romney in South Carolina and 18 points ahead in Florida, with Paul in single digits.

This would make an Iowa win for Romney, which would be headlined as something of a surprise, very useful in combination with a New Hampshire victory for chipping away at the Gingrich lead in South Carolina and Florida.  A Gingrich deflation in either state would give Romney some awfully powerful momentum.  If nobody else survives until Florida, it would also push a lot of Anybody-But-Romney voters to Paul. 

On the other hand, if Romney has a bad showing in Iowa despite his grand-finale efforts, his aura of inevitability will be badly disrupted… and whoever stomps him into third or fourth place would get some much-needed wind in their sails.  One way or the other, there’s going to be an avalanche of news analysis after the Iowa caucuses.  It’s crucial to be riding somewhere on top of that avalanche, instead of getting buried beneath it.

There is much interest in just how strong the Anybody-But-Romney impulse really is.  The running narrative of this campaign has been a series of failed auditions for the Not-Romney spot, which gives the impression of a GOP electorate looking desperately for somebody (but not anybody) else.  On the other hand, Romney has deliberately played a tactically conservative game, circling the outskirts of Thunderdome while everyone else gets crazy with chainsaws, battle axes, and Gardasil injections.  It makes some conservatives grumble about his lack of leadership, but you can’t say Romney didn’t pick a clear strategy and stick with it…

… until now, when shifting poll numbers and unexpected implosions among campaign rivals might have induced him to try for a somewhat risky knockout punch in Iowa.