MARION, Iowa -- Mitt Romney hit the gas Monday on his effort to try to win Iowa and put himself in position to clinch the Republican nomination for president within the next month.
"We're going to win this thing with all of our passion and strength, and do everything we can to get this campaign on the right track to go across the nation and to pick up other states and to get the ballots I need, the votes I need to become our nominee," he said here to the one of the most enthusiastic crowds Romney has seen in this state to date. The Romney campaign said the candidate was claiming he'll win the nomination, despite the fact that he appeared to be predicting a win Tuesday night in Iowa.
Romney appeared to feed off the crowd's energy, and ripped President Obama with stronger rhetoric than he has previously used on the campaign trail. He labeled Obama "the great complainer" and said he will "keep us from being one nation under God."
"I think president Obama wants to make us a European style welfare state, where instead of being a merit society, we're an entitlement society, where government's role is to take from some and give to others. What I know is if they do that, they'll substitute envy for ambition, and they'll poison the very spirit of America and keep us from being one nation under God," Romney said.
"I want to see America united. I watch a president who has become the great divider, the great complainer, the great excuse giver, the great blamer."
Romney's focus on Obama showed how -- even as the surging former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) toured the state elsewhere drawing big and energetic crowds -- Romney is confident he will be the nominee.
One day before Iowans caucus and signal their choice for the nomination, Romney finished a week-long bus tour of the Hawkeye State with a rally Monday night in Clive, just outside Des Moines, his fourth stop of the day.
For a candidate who could barely be bothered to come here for most of this year -- he visited eight times before this week and never spent more than two nights at a time -- it was a noteworthy day, signaling the extent to which he has committed himself to trying to win Iowa after a year spent lowering expectations.
"To be frank with you, we weren't counting on this back in the spring, but we're happy to be in the hunt," Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney adviser, said Monday of Romney's first-place position in the Iowa polls. "Our calendar was flexible. But based on what we were seeing and hearing we decided to invest the candidate's time this final week in Iowa."
It was Romney's defeat in Iowa in 2008, when he invested huge sums of money and political capital only to lose to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, that kept his campaign gun shy of jumping all in until the last minute, when they did with both feet.
Romney capped off his bus tour with a final push to the western and then eastern borders of the state on Sunday and Monday. He drove 400 miles in those two days, but skipped the longest leg by hopping on a small charter plane from Council Bluffs to Davenport -- a 300 mile drive -- Sunday night ahead of his rally there on Monday morning.
"This county was good to me the last time around," Romney said in Davenport at a half-full county fairground hall, one of the few times over the past week that he didn't draw a packed house. "This county did good things for me last time around and I need you to get out and do that again."
Romney -- who was joined on his bus and at rallies by his wife,Ann, four of his five sons, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) -- stayed close to his standard stump speech at each event Monday, but his wife comments revealed how confident the Romney campaign is about their chances in Iowa and beyond.
"I sense something happening as we've been going across Iowa. I sense a feeling, a coalescing, a momentum -- or whatever it is you want to call it -- around Mitt," Ann Romney said in Davenport. "I think people are starting to figure out that this is the guy that is going to beat Barack Obama. We're sensing it."
In Dubuque, Ann told children in the audience: "You know kids, guess what, this is going to be a momentous moment in your life, and you're going to remember that you were here when it all started in Iowa."
"This guy right here might be the next president of the United States, and I actually think that with all of your help he will be the president of the United States," she said.
Some on the Romney campaign -- particularly his Iowa staff -- evinced a bit more anxiety, since their focus is more granularly on the state and not on the larger electoral map, where Romney has a huge advantage over every other candidate.
But Fehrnstrom summed up the Romney campaign's overarching perspective on the race, which won't allow any candidate to claim enough delegates to clinch the nomination until the spring or possibly even early summer.
"The nominee is not going to be decided by a single contest. It's going to be conducted over six months, and at the end of the day we hope to have the delegates we need to win the nomination," he said.
The voter reaction to Romney has been mixed all week. His crowds have been large, and at some stops there has been palpable enthusiasm and excitement, though never at a high-decibel level until perhaps here in Marion on Monday afternoon.
And it was not difficult to find voters at Romney's events who were apathetic toward him, but were growing resigned to supporting him despite their lack of enthusiasm.
"I like somebody who's a little more aggressive. I don't think he's aggressive enough," said Pat Moylan, 61, a retired human resources worker in Davenport who said he was leaning toward Romney but could still decide to caucus for Santorum.
"I'd really like to see one of the unannounced jump in and muddy it up so much that they have to draft somebody," Moylan said, though he admitted this was a "fantasy."
John Ludescher, a 74-year old retired school teacher who stood in the back of Romney's event in Dubuque, said he was "leaning toward Santorum."
"But I think Romney probably has a better chance of winning," he added.
"I'll probably caucus for Santorum," he said.
Thune introduced Romney at his events, telling the voters essentially that support for anyone but Romney was a wasted vote.
"Who is best positioned, who is best equipped to actually win the election in November and to defeat Barack Obama? That is a very important factor in this equation," Thune said. "We've got a lot of candidates who are running. We have got to have somebody who can come out of the nominating process here, as Republicans, that actually can go toe to toe and face off with this president and defeat him."
That line of reasoning could have an ironic impact if the former Massachusetts governor is begrudgingly nominated by Republican voters, only to lose the general election because he lacks grassroots support and energy.
The Romney campaign is counting on the GOP to unite wholeheartedly behind Romney at some point because of the strong desire to defeat Obama, but voters like Moylan will need some convincing.
If Romney is the nominee, he said, "I'm not going to go out and pound on doors or anything like that."
But there were signs of electricity as well. Many in the crowd of about 350 in Dubuque stayed after Romney finished speaking and surged forward toward the stage, seeking to shake Romney's hand or have him sign a campaign sign or a book with an urgency not seen at most Romney events in the past. The candidate stayed long enough to get to most of them.
Twila Brownell, a retired hairdresser in Davenport, gushed over Romney: "I think he's going to be the one. I just have that feeling."
"I think he wants to save our country. I really do," she said.
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