Image: Mitt Romney
Chris Carlson  /  AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign stop at Elly's Tea and Coffee in Muscatine, Iowa, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011.
NBC News and news services
updated 12/30/2011 9:59:23 AM ET 2011-12-30T14:59:23

In early August, Mitt Romney, then a fragile national frontrunner, chose to skip the much ballyhooed straw poll here, appearing content to be leave the state of Iowa to others.

What a difference five months have made.

Thursday night, the former Massachusetts governor rode in to a construction company warehouse packed with hundreds of his supporters and undecided voters, the frontrunner in the latest polls of the state, and brimming with confidence.

"Wow. What a welcome. Thank you so much," Romney said after his bus drove into the warehouse and parked behind the stage. "That’s quite an entrance, isn’t it? Don’t try that at home kids."

NBC poll: Romney, Paul close in Iowa; Gingrich 5th

Thursday night's rally, and the two other campaign stops earlier in the day on Romney's tour of the northern portion of the Hawkeye state, were marked by big crowds, and patriotic themes. Romney quoted liberally from 'America the Beautiful,' and dusted off the story of Olympian Derek Parra, one of the most-told anecdotes in his 2008 campaign.

But Romney, whose campaign also released in Iowa a 60-second ad with soaring patriotic themes, spared President Barack Obama no quarter Thursday as he looked to frame the coming election in dramatic overtones.

"This is not an election just to change presidents, its an election to save the soul of America," Romney said, telling the crowd that Obama's policies were making America more like Europe.

As if to underscore that point, Romney made an oblique reference to the infamous French monarch Marie Antionette's most famous line.

"I watch the president, he says, ‘Well, it could have been worse.’ That goes down there with 'Let them eat cake.' That's not the right," Romney said. "Americans believe it can be better, and I have confidence in the future. I’m not a pessimist"

Friday, Romney will pivot to an ambitious two-state swing; headlining a rally with Chris Christie in Iowa in the morning, and serving a spaghetti dinner in New Hampshire in the evening, before returning to Iowa late Saturday to sprint toward the caucus finish line Tuesday.

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