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On Romney's bus in Iowa, seats are free

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," Steinbeck said.

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 fix it.

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 the forum.

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 Iowa.

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."

With assets estimated at more than $190 million from a successful business career, the son of former Michigan Gov. George W. Romney — who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP presidential nomination 40 years ago — must cross a cultural divide to bond with Republicans in largely rural Iowa. In small towns near the Missouri River last week, he made fun of the liberal New England state he once led ("My senators were Kerry and Kennedy. You want to trade?") and the French (Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's platform "wouldn't even get her elected in France").

Iowa's precinct caucuses, scheduled for Jan. 14, are to open the White House nomination races for both major parties. Romney is betting heavily that a win in Iowa will propel him to GOP primary victories in New Hampshire and beyond.

On the outskirts of Des Moines, Romney has opened a 12,000-square-foot Iowa headquarters, for now largely empty. The immediate task for his full-time staff of 16 is to round up thousands of Republicans to vote for Romney in the Aug. 11 straw poll in Ames. A strong showing, Romney hopes, will prove his viability.

Like several of his GOP opponents, Romney plans to buy thousands of $35 tickets from the state party for supporters to attend the event in Ames, a college town in central Iowa. Posted on a wall at his headquarters are the names of several dozen "bus captains" who will lead Romney convoys to Ames. The operation has impressed party leaders.

"Romney, by any measurement, has the best ground game going in Iowa, the most boots on the ground," said Iowa GOP Executive Director Chuck Laudner.

But candidates who dump money into the Ames contest can stumble far short of the White House, as publisher Steve Forbes showed in 1999, finishing second in Ames but faltering soon thereafter.

"I think it's been proven that money and organization alone won't work," Romney said in an interview before his Sioux Center forum.

"All I know," he added, "is I was very, very low a year ago, and now I'm top-tier, so the message is connecting well."

Romney is the only Republican who has run a full-fledged TV ad campaign in Iowa for months. Competing with household names like Giuliani and McCain, Romney has used the spots to introduce himself to Iowans on favorable terms. But that edge will inevitably vanish.

"It's kind of like having one hotel on I-95: It's easy to get to customers," said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of an ad-tracking company, TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG. "But when you have two or three competitors opening up next to you, consumers have more places to go and start shopping around a little bit."


michael.finnegan@latimes.com

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Finnegan was recently on assignment in Iowa.

For more inside political news check out The Times' new politics blog at:
www.LATimes.com/topoftheticket
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