WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney faces a key strategic decision over the next few weeks: whether or not to go for a quick knockout of Rick Perry in the primary election by going all in to win Iowa.
The former Massachusetts governor will have to make a decision about Iowa in the next few weeks. If Romney wants to make a serious run at the Jan. 3 caucuses, he will have to be in high gear by early December. But the key factor in Romney's deliberations is Perry: will he reemerge as a significant threat, or simply linger as a mortally-wounded, second-tier candidate with a big bankroll?
The Perry calculus is weighted by two pieces of data that pull in opposite directions. The Texas governor's $15 million war chest at the end of September -- enough to compete for a significant period of time with Romney -- is a big reason for Romney not to go for Iowa. Perry's strong financing would suggest he cannot easily be brushed aside and that it is wiser for Romney to continue his minimalist approach to Iowa while focusing on New Hampshire, Nevada and Florida.
But on the other hand, Perry has fallen far. There is good reason to believe he has dug himself a hole he cannot climb out of, something the Romney campaign is keen to highlight. On Friday afternoon they sent out a comparison of polls in the first five primary states -- before Perry's first debate Sept. 7 and then more recently -- that showed Perry's support has dropped in those states from an average of 25 percent to 8 percent over the last six weeks or so.
Perry has gone from 21 percent to 7 percent in Iowa, from 18 percent to 2 percent in New Hampshire, from 36 percent to 11 percent in South Carolina, from 29 percent to 12 percent in Nevada, and from 21 percent to 10 percent in Florida.
If Romney thinks Perry can come back from this, he will not change course in Iowa, where he has waged a low-intensity campaign. But all signs now are that the Romney campaign views the Texan as on the mat and is simply trying to keep its foot on his neck, so he doesn't get up and mount a comeback.
The Romney campaign has continued to go after Perry in recent days, attacking him relentlessly (and getting it back from the Perry campaign just as frequently). Romney himself focused his criticism on the Texan in the last debates.
Romney's trip to northwest Iowa on Thursday, where he said he wants to win the state, prompted speculation about whether the former Massachusetts governor will ramp up his efforts in the Hawkeye State. The Romney campaign is mum about their intentions, saying only that Romney will be back in Iowa at some point in November, that there are three potential debates in December around which they can schedule appearances, and that they have time to decide how much in resources they want to commit in the state.
But their paid staff has increased from three to four since August, according to the Romney campaign headquarters, and an Iowa Republican official said that Romney representatives have blanketed the state to sign up supporters and stay in touch with backers from 2008.
"I've been amazed at how well they've been able to do it under the radar," the Iowa GOP official said. "They cover a lot of ground. There isn't a county event where they don't have a guy there ... making sure they are keeping their own people home so they don't bleed support."
"They know what they're doing," he said.
Four years ago, Romney received 25 percent of the caucus vote and came in second to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The result was disappointing because Romney had made a priority of winning the state. But if Romney could match that result or get close to it after having kept expectations low, it would be a win. And if he finishes ahead of Perry, it could be a fatal blow to the Texan.
It helps Romney to have Herman Cain, the former Godfathers Pizza CEO, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) still in the race. They will compete with Perry for the hardcore conservative vote and could make it difficult for him to amass the support needed to beat Romney.
But for Romney to beat Perry and possibly win the state, he will have to campaign more often than he has. His events on Thursday were his first trip to the state since August. And Doug Gross, who chaired Romney’s effort in the state four years ago but is now unaffiliated, said Romney will have to hire key operatives in the state, such as himself and others, to keep them from going to Perry.
"They haven't talked to me which makes me wonder what they're doing," said Gross, who said that Perry was "fantastic in August, terrible in September, and is questionable now."
In addition, Romney is skipping a large gathering of about 1,000 social conservatives on Saturday, run by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, whose president, Steve Scheffler, is a Republican National Committee member and an influential figure among religious voters in the state.
Scheffler was not pleased by Romney’s decision to skip the event.
"My concern is, whoever the nominee is, if they have not spent some time meeting caucus goers and being vetted, it may be hard to get people excited about the nominee," Scheffler told the Huffington Post.
Romney will face another test with social conservatives Nov. 19, when Bob Vander Plaats' Family Leader organization hosts a candidate forum in Des Moines. Vander Plaats was not as diplomatic as Scheffler in expressing displeasure with Romney's decisions so far to avoid Christian conservative gatherings, and threatened to make an issue of it if Romney skips his event.
"If you diss this base in the primary season, it will be very hard to motivate this base to do door knocking and phone calling to get you to be president. It will be viewed as dissing the base across the country," Vander Plaats told HuffPost.
"If he doesn't come, I guarantee you every 30 minutes of the forum we will stop and have a commercial that says why we invited Romney and how he chose not to come. You bet it would air on TV," he said. "We will make that known."