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Romney's Iowa snub makes clear his centrist path

The most significant development in the Republican nomination contest this week was not the release of a mega-cache of Sarah Palin e-mails from her aborted Alaskan governorship.

Though ravenous reporters camped out in Juneau to scan the 24,000 pages of Palinisms (e.g. "unflippinbelievable") for dirt on the potential presidential contender, Mitt Romney's Iowa snub mattered much more.

The decision by Mr. Romney not to participate in the summer Iowa straw poll, considered an early test of strength for GOP contenders, laid bare his centrist strategy for winning the nomination and the White House.

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It is a risky choice, given the influence Tea Party types and social conservatives will hold in choosing the Republican nominee in 2012. But it may reflect his realization that he could not likely win them over, anyway.

"The bottom line for Romney is that the Republican primary electorate is more conservative than he is, no matter how much he tries to remake himself," explained David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

But Mr. Romney's greatest weakness in eyes of grassroots Republicans - his moderation - is precisely what makes him the most competitive of the potential GOP nominees against U.S. President Barack Obama.

Indeed, a Washington Post/ABC News survey released this week showed Mr. Romney outpolling Mr. Obama 49 per cent to 46 per cent among registered voters. He was the only GOP candidate to top the President in a hypothetical one-on-one match up.

Mr. Romney's decision to announce now that he will not take part in the Aug. 13 Ames, Iowa, straw poll spares him from having to kowtow to the base of evangelical Christians who account for about 60 per cent of GOP voters in the state's caucuses.

The former Massachusetts governor tried that approach when he ran for the 2008 Republican nomination. Though he won the Iowa poll, he was dogged by accusations that he had changed his stands on abortion and gay marriage in the process. He ended up coming second to Mike Huckabee in the state's more important caucuses, draining his campaign of momentum.

This time, Mr. Romney is sticking to an all-economic message, trumpeting his business experience, and focusing his efforts on the early primary states of New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

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Above all, he is avoiding the temptation of trying to be all things to all people. He has even stood by his past pronouncements on climate change, telling a New Hampshire town hall meeting last week: "I believe the world's getting warmer. … And number two, I believe humans contribute to that."

Mr. Romney's absence from the Iowa poll - he will still compete in next February's Iowa caucuses, though with lower expectations - leaves the field wide open for a second-tier candidate to win the state and turbo-charge his or her campaign the way Mr. Huckabee did last time around.

Ex-Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty is already running hard to score points in Iowa. Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Ms. Palin would top contenders in Iowa should they jump into the GOP race.

Former House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich might have been considered competitive there, too. But the implosion of his campaign, with most of his top staff resigning Thursday, has likely damaged his candidacy beyond repair.

David Carney and Rob Johnson quit as Mr. Gingrich's top strategist and campaign manager, respectively. Until joining Mr. Gingrich, the duo performed the same task for Texas Governor Rick Perry, and may now be preparing to return to his fold to lay the groundwork for a presidential run.

"I do not think those two would have jumped from Gingrich so early if they weren't at least getting some signals from Perry that he was seriously considering getting in," said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. "For those of us who've watched Perry, it was unfathomable he would run for president without at least Carney at his side."

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The 61-year-old Mr. Perry, currently the longest-serving U.S. governor, would be a formidable GOP candidate, appealing to Tea Partiers, social conservatives and many establishment types alike.

His anti-tax, small government record will win him instant converts among Republican primary voters. Texas has led the country in job growth, with employment rising 2.5 per cent in the year to April compared with barely 1 per cent nationally.

His strident religious views would turn off centrist voters, however. He invited fellow governors to an Aug. 6 Day of Prayer in Houston, saying: "There is hope for America. It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees."

But if Republicans are looking for the perfect foil to Mr. Romney, she might not be in Alaska (or Arizona), after all. They might just find him in the Lone Star state.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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