LE MARS, IOWA — It will take money to win the Republican presidential straw poll this summer in Ames, Iowa, and Mitt Romney is unabashed about using his to buy votes.
Campaigning at an ice cream parlor in this town 200 miles away last
week, the former governor of Massachusetts offered free bus rides
to "anybody that wants to come out to Ames and vote for me."
"If you want to vote for somebody else, you might buy yourself an
RV," he joked to a crowd of Republicans sipping milkshakes.
Romney's spending on the bus rides is part of his
multimillion-dollar push to vault himself to the front of the
Republican field in Iowa. Although struggling to make himself known
nationally, he has risen to the top tier in Iowa polls, alongside
Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudolph W.
Giuliani — thanks largely to his spending.
But challenges for Romney are mounting in Iowa.
The all-but-certain candidacy of former Sen. Fred D. Thompson
(R-Tenn.), a star of television's "Law & Order," threatens to
undercut Romney's drive for conservative support.
And Romney's domination of Iowa's television airwaves will soon
end, when GOP rivals launch their own ad campaigns. Hinting at a
brawl ahead, McCain has been mocking Romney, casting him as an
unprincipled waffler, most recently on immigration.
Beyond that, Romney's recent two-day swing across Iowa also exposed
the difficulty he has responding to questions that require
unscripted answers — a challenge he's likely to face again
Tuesday in a New Hampshire debate co-sponsored by CNN.
Among the disappointed Iowans was Republican Linda Wessels, 41, of
Rock Rapids. At a Romney forum in Sioux Center, her autistic
5-year-old son, Sam, asked the candidate how he would help children
with the disorder.
"Cute little guy," Romney responded before launching into a
monologue on topics including stem cell research and cloning
— but not autism.
"I felt avoidance of the issue," Wessels said.
Retired aerospace worker Gary Steinbeck asked about expansion of
the space program, leading Romney into a ramble on science, farming
and energy. "He didn't really talk about the space program,"
And at another forum in West Des Moines, Republican Steven Faux,
54, was left cold after telling Romney that his son's National
Guard unit was on the verge of deployment to Iraq. The candidate
does not mention the war in his stump speech.
Describing himself as a "worried parent," Faux, a Drake University
professor, called the war a "mess" and asked Romney how he would
Romney responded by voicing support for President Bush's recent
troop buildup, saying it had a "reasonable prospect of success." He
outlined risks of a quick U.S. withdrawal but offered no hint of
how he would proceed if Bush could not stabilize Iraq.
"I thought he gave me a stock answer," Faux told reporters after
Still, Romney's fast-paced outline of a conservative agenda —
fiscal discipline, family values and a robust military —
draws frequent, if not fervent, applause. His appearance strikes
many as presidential, an image he often tries to enhance by using a
giant American flag as his backdrop, as he did last week in
With his suntan, swept-back hair and sharply tailored suits,
Romney, 60, can also seem "too perfect," as "Tonight Show" host Jay
Leno put it — a nicelooking "cardboard cutout" who shuns
liquor, tobacco and divorce.
"I can have a good time, but you're not going to hear about it,"
Romney joked in a recent appearance on Leno's show. "What goes on
in Disneyland stays in Disneyland."
ON THE TRAIL
On Romney's bus in Iowa, seats are free
The Republican is betting heavily on the early-voting state. He's ahead in the polls after weeks of advertising. And he'll even pay for rides to the straw poll this summer.
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