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Will retail campaigning win the day in Iowa?

In Des Moines, Iowa precinct captains count the cauucs votes ahead of Mitt Romney's 8 vote victory. Photo by Matt Laslo

In Des Moines, Iowa precinct captains count the caucus votes ahead of Mitt Romney’s eight vote victory. Photo by Matt Laslo

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa – A cold and persistent wind cuts through most every piece of clothing people are wearing, but it doesn’t stop two dedicated volunteers from parking themselves outside a Mitt Romney rally to thank folks for coming out.

“Happy New Year,” one yells cheerily before offering his pitch: “Yard signs anybody?”

The two stacks of Romney yard signs that line the sidewalk aren’t a common sight in Iowa this time around—most other candidates are passing out stickers and even some posters that are used once in photo-ops and then discarded.

The race in Iowa this cycle has had a distinctly different feel for many—most candidates haven’t been on the ground consistently in the weeks ahead of the caucus and rather than a dogged schedule of retail campaign stops, Iowans have been treated to a more than $13 million television ad blitz ahead of the first votes of the 2012 race.

Aside from reshuffling the GOP field, Tuesday’s results in Iowa could answer another critical campaign question: Can media-driven national campaigns anchored by millions in TV ad dollars win out in a state where voters put such a premium on retail politicking and face time with candidates?

Over this past week in Iowa, one thing is clear: the Romney campaign is a well-oiled machine and the organization it has activated in Iowa is hard at work. The campaign has plenty of cash, but more importantly, it has savvy operatives who know how to spend it wisely and are betting their candidate can deliver a knockout blow to half of the Republican field in a state few expected the former Massachusetts governor had a chance to win just weeks ago.

“If you email you get a quick response. They’ve got people out that know what the heck they’re doing,” says Linda Skutcham after listening to one of Romney’s closing speeches to potential voters before Iowans caucus Tuesday. “That takes a lot of organizational skills.”

Romney’s rivals don’t have the resources that his campaign and the Super PACs supporting him do, and it shows.

Rick Santorum’s rise has come the old fashioned way—he’s visited every one of the 99 counties in Iowa, traversing the state without an entourage for much of the past year, sometimes having his daughters act as chauffeurs. Since his meteoric rise in the polls, Santorum’s employed a massive campaign bus, but he drives from event to event separately in a truck. Aside from coalescing much of the state’s Evangelical vote behind him, analysts say Santorum’s growing popularity has a lot to do with his embrace of Iowa style retail politics.

“Look, we have over 1,000 caucus captains. That’s pretty strong,” Santorum boasts. Those caucus captains will be deployed throughout the state at caucus sites Tuesday and given the chance to rally and woo undecideds before the first votes are cast.

Karen Fesler chairs the Santorum campaign in Johnson County. She plans to show up an hour and a half early to her caucus site Tuesday to catch voters as they come in from the cold.

“My plan personally is to greet people as they come in, answer any questions they may have about Senator Santorum, get up and give my speech and hope that I can sway some undecideds,” she says.

By comparison, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s approach is a much less conventional one. The one-time Iowa frontrunner, who has been in free fall for much of the past two weeks, has had to fend off a multi-million dollar negative ad campaign. Instead of hitting every county in the expansive state, Gingrich has taken to talking policy in a series of teletown halls.

“We’ve reached over 60,000 people on teletown halls in the last week,” says Gingrich’s press secretary, RC Hammond.

“If that estimate is put up against the 120,000 to 130,000 who are going to attend the caucus, if Newt has spoken personally on the phone to half of the people who are going to attend the caucus, that’s a lot more powerful than any negative advertising,” added Hammond.

On New Year’s Day, more than a hundred people packed into a bar in Ames for a Gingrich event where the former speaker discussed everything from farm policy to water boarding. But Gingrich’s Iowa stops no longer have frontrunner buzz, something observers say he might have captured for good had he embarked on an all-out retail blitz at the height of his popularity in the state.

Despite Santorum’s rise and Romney’s re-dedication to Iowa, the campaign with the most enthusiasm ahead of Tuesday looks to be that of Rep. Ron Paul. The libertarian-leaning congressman has strong support from young and independent-minded voters who come out in throngs to hear him speak about unwinding the federal government.

While Paul has stumped hard across the state, he’s relying on an unusual coalition to help him to victory Tuesday. Driving the passion of many of Paul’s vocal backers is the feeling that he’s still being written off by mainstream media outlets.

“The media has been ignoring him and even in spite of that here in Iowa he has gone to the top in the polls,” says Lani Creblean of Des Moines who spent Sunday night at a phone bank with more than a hundred other Paul supporters.

No matter how it shakes out Tuesday, Iowa appears poised to reward a campaign that has paid its dues in a state where voters demand no less. Despite downplaying his Iowa campaign for much of the past year, Romney has spent more time in the state over the past four years than just about anyone, and Santorum and Paul have laid their own foundations, building solid ground-up organizations.

 This story first appeared at Campaigns and Elections Magazine.




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