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Romney adapts business plan to politics

Like millions of bargain hunters, Mitt Romney and his son Josh went on eBay earlier this year, not in search of someone else's trash, but their own political treasure.
Romney Iowaa Machine
Republican presidential hopeful, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, right, talks with Dearld Nanke, of Mechanicsville, Iowa, during a visit to The Cove diner in Moscow, Iowa, Wednesday.Charlie Neibergall / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Like millions of bargain hunters, Mitt Romney and his son Josh went on eBay earlier this year, not in search of someone else's trash, but their own political treasure.

They found it in Phoenix, and the Republican presidential contender made the winning bid on a recreational vehicle. Driven north by his son, and shrink-wrapped in $10,000 worth of Romney campaign graphics, the Iowa-made Itasca Sunstar became the "Mitt Mobile."

Josh Romney ended up touring all 99 Iowa counties in the RV this summer, a 3,500-mile trek symbolic of his father's workmanlike approach to winning not only Saturday's Iowa straw poll but, more importantly, the Iowa caucuses.

The Harvard Business School graduate has hired some of the most accomplished workers and allowed them to develop a game plan that he, his family and their aides are working tirelessly to execute.

"Iowa has a big voice to be heard when it comes to selecting the nominee of our party," Romney told an audience in Bettendorf on Wednesday. "I care very much about this process."

While Romney trails front-runner Rudy Giuliani in national polls, the former Massachusetts governor leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, which kick off the nomination process. Giuliani and another top GOP contender, Arizona Sen. John McCain, decided to skip the straw poll rather than risk an embarrassing loss to the upstart Romney. Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who has also led Romney in polls, will not formally announce his candidacy until next month.

"I would have to say, and I don't think I'd get much argument, that from an Iowa perspective, Mitt Romney has put together the strongest ground game we've ever seen in Iowa. It just is," said Chuck Laudner, executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa and an avowed neutral observer of the race.

"They've been here longer, their staff is deeper, and they're organized farther down into the county level than any campaign I can remember," Laudner said.

That's not just the plan in Iowa, where Romney had 12 town hall meetings scheduled in the final three days before the poll.

He's employing the same business model in New Hampshire, where he's hired veteran GOP strategist Tom Rath; in Florida, where many of former Gov. Jeb Bush's top aides are in senior positions on his campaign; and in Michigan, where Romney's father, George, once served as governor and is fondly remembered.

Romney has bombarded Iowa, South Carolina and the other states with television commercials. They are part of an unprecedented $5 million early ad buy - financed with loans from the multimillionaire himself - aimed at boosting his name recognition.

The campaign's overall strategy is to win in Iowa and New Hampshire and then use the momentum to roll into the Feb. 5 mega-primary in which 20-odd states from California to New York are planning to vote. Romney's fellow Bay Stater, Democrat John Kerry, won his party's 2004 presidential nomination in similar fashion.

The primacy Romney has placed on Iowa is evident in one simple fact: Gentry Collins, his state campaign director, is being paid $73 more than the $100,000 annual salary for Beth Myers, who is responsible for Romney's overall effort as national campaign manager.

Romney is also getting strategic advice from Doug Gross, who served as chief of staff to Terry Branstad, who was Iowa's longest-serving governor, and assistance with the straw poll from Nicole Schlinger, who founded the largest fundraising and event management company for Iowa GOP candidates.

While former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson has made the most visits to Iowa of any GOP candidate, traveling across the border at least once a week every week this year, Romney has participated in 272 fundraisers, voter and media meetings - and traveled 3,600 miles - before he began his final pre-poll blitz on Wednesday.

Inside Romney's state headquarters, located here in a former cell phone company office west of Des Moines, a map breaks Iowa into 10 regions, based on expected caucus turnout. The most compact, Region 6, centers on Des Moines, the most populous district.

Each region is staffed by a field director who coordinates with county chairmen and other political types in the district. Like other candidates, Romney bought a list of past caucus-goers from the state GOP and is mining it for potential supporters. Every day volunteers make calls from the list, as well as their own lists of friends, neighbors and business associates.

"You're talking about a very limited number of people who participate in the caucuses," said Collins, a former executive director of the state GOP. The record turnout was in 1988, when 109,000 Republicans participated.

"There isn't a vote out there that doesn't have a great deal of value. So, you go anywhere you have to to get it," said Collins.

One small but potentially potent bloc: Romney's fellow Mormons. While a church almanac says there are only 22,100 Mormons in Iowa, seven-tenths of 1 percent of the state's overall population, if they appear en masse at the caucuses, it could be a boon to Romney.

Gross and Collins said the campaign is not targeting them per se, but they hope Romney's clean-living lifestyle helps them generally with evangelicals and other social conservatives.

Romney has hammered on popular Iowa themes: opposition to the inheritance tax, which hurts family farmers who want to pass their property to their children; criticism of illegal immigration, which some Iowans feel costs them jobs; and a call for a bipartisan panel to review Social Security, a key concern in the state historically with the country's oldest population.

Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University, said Romney has also been helped by his $35 million worth of campaign fundraising - tops in the GOP field - and his prodigious ad buys highlighting his conservative message.

"He's got a message tailored to and committed for the evangelicals, as well as the business community, and he's got the money to broadcast that message," said Goldford. "And nobody else is on stage at this point for them to hear a competing message."