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Mitt Romney quietly solidifying support in Iowa

As Republican presidential candidates rise, fumble and fall in popularity in the race for the 2012 nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney quietly continues to build a loyal, formidable network of supporters in Iowa, strategists say.

Romney's team plays down its effort in the state where the first caucus takes place Jan. 3, insisting his campaign is lean, efficient and reliant on volunteers. Yet, seasoned Iowa Republicans say it would be a mistake to overlook the low-key presence Romney built while few people were watching him.

"Gov. Romney has a lot of friends in Iowa, including some from our campaign four years ago, and many new supporters who see him as the best candidate to beat Barack Obama on jobs and the economy," said David Kochel, Romney's Iowa strategist.

Romney likely is taking an "Aw, shucks, we aren't doing much in Iowa" tact so that if he wins, political reporters will call it a surprise -- and if he loses, no one will consider it a big deal because he set low expectations, said John Brabender, a Mt. Washington-based political strategist who is senior adviser to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

"It is a relatively smart strategy," he said.

Six weeks before the Iowa caucuses, an Iowa State University/Gazette/KCRG poll released Thursday shows Romney slightly trailing Georgia businessman Herman Cain, who led the poll with 24.5 percent, and Texas Congressman Ron Paul, with 20.4 percent. The poll of 1,256 registered Iowa voters put Romney in third place with 16.3 percent; 8.1 percent said they're undecided. The poll had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.

That shows the race remains fluid, said Dave Peterson, director of the Harkin Institute of Public Policy at ISU and a political scientist who assisted with the poll.

"When people are asked if they made up their mind yet, more than half volunteered that they haven't decided," Peterson said. "Another 30 percent admit that the person they prefer right now is only a weak preference."

Romney's Iowa team consists of a staff of four augmented by volunteers who attend covered-dish dinners, church suppers, town hall meetings and the like. Their goal is to remind former supporters of his strengths and to recruit other voters.

State GOP Chairman Matt Strawn believes Romney built goodwill among voters during his unsuccessful bid for the nomination in 2008.

An estimated 130,000 people will attend the Iowa caucus and their choices will effectively eliminate much of the Republican field.

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