Image: Mitt Romney
Daniel Acker  /  AP
Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a Republican presidential debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011.
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updated 10/13/2011 2:05:06 PM ET 2011-10-13T18:05:06

Make no mistake, Mitt Romney is competing in Iowa.

It's not the $10 million campaign he waged for the state's presidential caucuses four years ago. But the former Massachusetts governor, who has kept a low public profile here since his 2008 loss, is quietly ramping up his efforts in hopes that a surprise top-three finish will give him a boost heading into the follow-up New Hampshire primary.

"He's campaigning here. And he's running the campaign more skillfully than four years ago," said Joni Scotter, a 2008 Romney supporter who has heard from Romney several times this year.

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With Romney's position in the Republican race growing stronger, his team senses a possible opening for a top-three showing in January's caucuses. Evangelicals who hold great sway in the caucuses — and are skeptical of the New Englander — haven't rallied around any one candidate and could divide their support among rivals viewed as more culturally conservative than he is.

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The hope is that Romney's emphasis on jobs will resonate in a state where the economy tops voters' concerns and Republicans showed a willingness to embrace a more business-focused nominee when they nominated Gov. Terry Branstad last year.

Romney's stepped-up effort in the state comes as his chief rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, struggles to right his campaign following a rocky few weeks. The evangelical governor with a record of job creation is a better fit for Iowans and could threaten Romney's march to the nomination if he wins the caucuses. And with $15 million in the bank, Perry has enough money to launch a major effort to try to bury Romney in Iowa.

In a sign of Romney's increased attention to the state, he plans to return next week to campaign in conservative western Iowa. The visit comes two weeks after his wife, Ann, courted Iowans over several days.

He's also has modestly boosted his staff in the state — from two to four — and is making fresh appeals to business leaders while staying in regular touch with key supporters and volunteers from his 2008 campaign. He plans a conference call with thousands of Iowa GOP activists in the coming weeks; it will be his third such call since June. And for months now, he has dispatched a staffer to represent him at every local GOP function in Iowa's 99 counties. He also is likely to participate in a November forum here hosted by Branstad and Mary Andringa, chairwoman of the National Association of Manufacturers.

Primary season could begin in early December

His aides insist that spending more time in Iowa isn't a shift from Romney's arm's-length approach thus far, and they deny that it's a response to Perry.

And despite giving more attention to Iowa, Romney's focus remains on New Hampshire, where he leads by a healthy margin in polls.

That state is more of a natural fit for Romney, who is from neighboring Massachusetts and has a vacation home on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesauke. New Hampshire also allows independents to vote in their primary, and Republicans there are far less tied to the evangelical movement than Iowa caucus goers, many of whom viewed Romney skeptically last time because of his reversals on social issues and his Mormon faith.

Still, advisers acknowledge that this fall will feature a more robust effort in Iowa than there's been all year.

"You'll see the campaign continue to engage and compete in Iowa going forward," said Romney's senior Iowa adviser, David Kochel, who constructed Romney's vast 2008 Iowa strategy and its smaller-scale 2012 version. "We're reconnecting with our volunteers and supporters. We've got staff working on the ground and we want to do well in the Iowa caucuses."

The effort is aimed at setting — then beating — expectations to generate momentum in a place few expected him to compete.

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It's also the next phase in a gradual and strategic increase in intensity, but one aimed at keeping campaign costs low while casting Romney as the strongest economy-focused candidate in the field.

It appears to be working.

Romney has ranked at or near the top of surveys of Iowa Republicans since June, while Perry, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and businessman Herman Cain have all taken their turn alongside him as a leading, more socially conservative alternative.

But there are risks.

Romney aides want to avoid a thumping by Perry, who has challenged Romney most aggressively as the field's leading economic conservative.

George W. Bush's 2000 victory in Iowa, with 41 percent of the vote, was seen as crushing and helped him survive losing the New Hampshire primary to John McCain.

Perry is struggling in Iowa after surging when he got into the race in August.

Cain benefits from outsider status

Since then, he's had to fend off attacks on parts of his record where he has deviated from conservative orthodoxy.

Compared with Romney, he's arguably a better fit for the state. He has been reaching out to fellow evangelicals, economic conservatives and agricultural-focused caucus goers — seen by some as keys to building a coalition similar to Bush's.

A second-place finish for Romney behind Bachmann, who also identifies with the evangelical conservative movement, would hurt Romney little. He could still enter New Hampshire as the leading economic conservative and hurt Perry.

An Iowa victory, which aides downplay, could vault Romney into New Hampshire — and, perhaps, beyond.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Which '12 hopeful is winning social media race?

  1. Closed captioning of: Which '12 hopeful is winning social media race?

    >>> more so than ever, social media is going to play a prominent and influential role in the presidential election. richard lou wi is here. you've been looking into the campaign. it's gone exponentially bigger.

    >> take a look at 2008 . 2010 has been on this huge upswing at the moment. it is the political currency. tw twitter followers, youtube views, facebook fans. not all candidates are doing well at those. mitt romney has more facebook fans than any of his competitives at over one million there. you can look at michelle bachmann and herman cain . herman cain at the bottom. last week herman cain passed up rick perry in fan counts. so one reason cain had the most fan ads last month. the worst last month was michelle bachmann . she had negative fans lost. cain getting the bump there. facebook says that's not good for michelle bachmann , obviously, because in 2010 over 70% who had more fans on facebook won the congressional races. one professor saying here to that point. when candidates appear to be socially active and engaged in democracy, they develop a vast well of good will with the political elites who have the ability to make or break them in the future. here's why social is mentioned. one site ranking items like passion or how likely people are talking about you. by that measure, ron paul is at the top. just last week, that measure of passion. he was at 53%. but romney gains on positive comments. what's being said on the social media sphere. the mentions for him, the sentiment ranking. romney has four positive to one negative comment. it was just two to one last week, which is where perry stands now. organizations see the important tie in politics and becoming key partners. who will cohost the gop debate? twitter barely in the mix in 2008 . now part of everyday politics. 75 congressmen do not have twitter accounts today. they have to get on the bandwagon. and a debate right before the nation's first primary. for all the latest on politics, all of our viewers can follow you.

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