Iowa Reluctantly Warms To Romney

Jan 1, 2012
Originally published on January 1, 2012 10:32 pm

It seems Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney may at last be melting enough hearts to secure his front-runner status — for the moment, anyway. The Des Moines Register's final poll before Tuesday's Iowa caucuses put Romney ahead in what looks to be a three-man race.

The poll, released Saturday night, showed Romney in the lead at 24 percent. Congressman Ron Paul was a very close second at 22 percent, and a surprise surge put Sen. Rick Santorum third at 15 percent.

Yet even with his challengers close on his heels, Romney's focus was elsewhere on Saturday. Stopping in Le Mars, Iowa — the self-proclaimed "Ice Cream Capital of the World" — his speech, like all Romney campaign speeches, was about President Obama.

"This is an election to decide whether we're going to go further and further down the path of becoming more and more similar to a European welfare state, or whether instead we're going to remain an exceptional nation," he told the audience at the Family Table Restaurant.

There was also a nod to Ronald Reagan-style eloquence.

"I don't want to do what the president said, 'fundamentally transform America.' I don't want to turn us into something we're not," Romney said. "I want to bring back the principles that made us the hope of the earth. We are still a shining city on a hill."

Romney did make some news at the restaurant regarding the DREAM Act, a bill that would create a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants. An audience member asked if he would veto the bill if Congress passed it. The candidate said he would.

Romney went on to detail his plan to reduce illegal immigration.

"Secure the border with a fence, make sure we have enough border patrol agents to secure the fence, and I will also crack down on employers that hire people who are here illegally," he said.

The latest poll by The Des Moines Register puts Romney in the lead in Iowa with 24 percent, just ahead of Congressman Ron Paul, who has 22 percent.

Still, many Iowa Republicans still have misgivings about Romney. They don't like the health care law he signed as governor. There are suspicions about his social conservative credentials and about his Mormon faith.

None of these came up Saturday. The audience, which included still undecided voters, was friendly.

Le Mars Mayor Dick Kirchoff was at the restaurant. He has not endorsed a candidate, but says Romney is "a very honest individual."

"To me, he's got a plan on how to turn things around, and that's important in my world," Kirchoff says.

Retired engineer Bud Withrow, 76, says he's a reluctant Romney supporter. It's more a product of his dissatisfaction with the rest of the field.

"I'll go ahead and sign up, take my paper to vote, and I will vote for Mitt Romney," he says, "but I feel uneasy about it."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Mitt Romney's staffers might have had another reason to get down. The latest poll from Iowa's Des Moines Register has Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the lead with 24 percent. But Congressman Ron Paul is a very close second at 22 percent. Followed by Senator Rick Santorum, whose late surge has put him at 15 percent.

NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea spent yesterday with Romney on the road.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: You put a lot of miles on your rental car when you're covering the Iowa caucuses. And right now, we're a little over three hours outside of Des Moines in the northwestern corner of the state. This is the city of Le Mars, Iowa. A sign just told us this is the Ice Cream Capital of the World. I don't know what that has to do with this story, but it's just one of those things you learn when you're on the road. We're here looking for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney

And right here's the Family Table Restaurant. That's where we should find our candidate.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: They're packed in. I

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You all, I'm so sorry, this is all full. If you go behind that rope right there...

MITT ROMNEY: Oh, look at this. You think we can fit in a few more people? What do you think?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMNEY: Hi, how are you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Fine, thank you.

ROMNEY: Hi, how are you?

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: Romney then takes the mic, and...

ROMNEY: It's nice to be here again, I got to tell you. It's not just because this is such a lovely corner of Iowa. It's also because it's the Ice Cream Capital of the World. And I...

GONYEA: Local color aside, this speech, like all Romney campaign speeches, is about President Obama.

ROMNEY: This is an election to decide whether we're going to go further and further down the path of becoming more and more similar to a European welfare state, or whether instead we're going to remain an exceptional nation.

GONYEA: And there's a nod to Ronald Reagan style eloquence.

ROMNEY: Well, I don't want to do what the president said: Fundamentally transform America. I don't want to turn us into something we're not. I want to bring back the principles that made us the hope of the Earth. We are still a shining city on a hill.

GONYEA: Romney did make some news at the restaurant, regarding the DREAM Act, A bill that would create a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants, An audience member asked him about it.

ROMNEY: The question is: If I were elected and if were Congress were to pass the DREAM Act, would I veto it? And the answer is yes.

GONYEA: Romney then went on to detail his plan to reduce illegal immigration.

ROMNEY: And secure the border with a fence, make sure we have enough border patrol agents to secure that fence, and I will also crack down on employers who hire people who are here illegally.

GONYEA: Many Iowa Republicans still have misgivings about Romney, He gets just one-in-four likely caucus goers in the latest poll. They don't like the health care law he signed as governor and its mandate. There are suspicions about his social conservative credentials and about his Mormon faith. None of these came up yesterday. The audience, which included still undecided voters, was friendly.

Le Mars Mayor Dick Kirchoff was at the restaurant. He has not endorsed a candidate but says this of Romney:

MAYOR DICK KIRCHOFF: To me, he's a very honest individual. To me, he's got a plan on how to turn things around and that's important in my world.

GONYEA: Seventy-six-year-old retired engineer Bud Withrow says he's only a reluctant Romney supporter; it's more a product of his dissatisfaction with the rest of the field,

BUD WITHROW: I will go ahead and sign up, take my paper to vote, and I will vote for Mitt Romney. But I feel uneasy about it.

GONYEA: By now, the candidate is back outside.

ROMNEY: Thanks you, guys. thank you. Bye-bye. Take care. Bye-bye.

GONYEA: He boards his bus and rolls off to the next stop, Sioux City.

Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.