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On Romney's bus in Iowa, seats are free

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LE MARS, IOWA — It will take money to win the Republicanpresidential straw poll this summer in Ames, Iowa, and Mitt Romneyis unabashed about using his to buy votes.

Campaigning at an ice cream parlor in this town 200 miles away lastweek, the former governor of Massachusetts offered free bus ridesto "anybody that wants to come out to Ames and vote for me."

"If you want to vote for somebody else, you might buy yourself anRV," he joked to a crowd of Republicans sipping milkshakes.

Romney's spending on the bus rides is part of hismultimillion-dollar push to vault himself to the front of theRepublican field in Iowa. Although struggling to make himself knownnationally, he has risen to the top tier in Iowa polls, alongsideSen. 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 toundercut Romney's drive for conservative support.

And Romney's domination of Iowa's television airwaves will soonend, when GOP rivals launch their own ad campaigns. Hinting at abrawl ahead, McCain has been mocking Romney, casting him as anunprincipled waffler, most recently on immigration.

Beyond that, Romney's recent two-day swing across Iowa also exposedthe difficulty he has responding to questions that requireunscripted answers — a challenge he's likely to face againTuesday in a New Hampshire debate co-sponsored by CNN.

Among the disappointed Iowans was Republican Linda Wessels, 41, ofRock Rapids. At a Romney forum in Sioux Center, her autistic5-year-old son, Sam, asked the candidate how he would help childrenwith the disorder.

"Cute little guy," Romney responded before launching into amonologue 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 ofthe space program, leading Romney into a ramble on science, farmingand 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 NationalGuard unit was on the verge of deployment to Iraq. The candidatedoes not mention the war in his stump speech.

Describing himself as a "worried parent," Faux, a Drake Universityprofessor, called the war a "mess" and asked Romney how he wouldfix it.

Romney responded by voicing support for President Bush's recenttroop buildup, saying it had a "reasonable prospect of success." Heoutlined risks of a quick U.S. withdrawal but offered no hint ofhow he would proceed if Bush could not stabilize Iraq.

"I thought he gave me a stock answer," Faux told reporters afterthe 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 strikesmany as presidential, an image he often tries to enhance by using agiant American flag as his backdrop, as he did last week inIowa.

With his suntan, swept-back hair and sharply tailored suits,Romney, 60, can also seem "too perfect," as "Tonight Show" host JayLeno put it — a nicelooking "cardboard cutout" who shunsliquor, 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 onin Disneyland stays in Disneyland."

With assets estimated at more than $190 million from a successfulbusiness career, the son of former Michigan Gov. George W. Romney— who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP presidential nomination40 years ago — must cross a cultural divide to bond withRepublicans in largely rural Iowa. In small towns near the MissouriRiver last week, he made fun of the liberal New England state heonce led ("My senators were Kerry and Kennedy. You want to trade?")and the French (Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's platform "wouldn'teven get her elected in France").

Iowa's precinct caucuses, scheduled for Jan. 14, are to open theWhite House nomination races for both major parties. Romney isbetting heavily that a win in Iowa will propel him to GOP primaryvictories in New Hampshire and beyond.

On the outskirts of Des Moines, Romney has opened a12,000-square-foot Iowa headquarters, for now largely empty. Theimmediate task for his full-time staff of 16 is to round upthousands of Republicans to vote for Romney in the Aug. 11 strawpoll in Ames. A strong showing, Romney hopes, will prove hisviability.

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

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

But candidates who dump money into the Ames contest can stumble farshort 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'twork," Romney said in an interview before his Sioux Centerforum.

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

Romney is the only Republican who has run a full-fledged TV adcampaign in Iowa for months. Competing with household names likeGiuliani and McCain, Romney has used the spots to introduce himselfto Iowans on favorable terms. But that edge will inevitablyvanish.

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


michael.finnegan@latimes.com*Finnegan was recently on assignment in Iowa.For more inside political news check out The Times' new politicsblog at: www.LATimes.com/topoftheticket

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