Numerous observers of the current presidential campaign have noticed what might politely be called a political evolution on the part of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Known as something of a moderate when he served as that New England state's chief executive - among other things, he promoted a universal health-care plan and acquiesced in civil-union status for gay couples -Romney now runs as a bedrock conservative.
On the eve of the first actual vote in Iowa, whose crucial caucuses are being held on Thursday evening, Romney has adopted - shades of Richard Nixon -- what might even be called a "Southern strategy." Undoubtedly mindful of a serious recent challenge from former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee to his once unchallenged lead in this Midwestern state, Romney has been unloading down-home rhetoric on his audiences with both barrels.
Take this Wednesday night appeal, made to a sizeable crowd at the Hy-Vee corporate conference center in West Des Moines: "The first time it mattered where I came from in this political season was in Memphis, Tennessee. And someone, thankfully, had made up T-shirts for me and for my supporters there. And they say: 'Yankee Governor' - that's not a good start in Memphis -- and down below it said "Southern Values.'
"And as I asked people what they meant by Southern values, you know what they mean by Southern values. Again: Love of family , love of God and love of country, and love of hard work, love of opportunity. And so I said, yeah, I got Southern values. And then you come out here. Those are heartland values. That's what you call them here."
Although Romney focused somewhat on his managerial background - he touted his organization of the Utah winter Olympics in 2002 and had gold-medal skater Dan Jansen on hand for the occasion - he weighed in most heavily with some serious patriotic fustian.
Disdaining Democrat John Edwards' refrain of "two Americas," Romney scoffed, "We are one America. We are a nation united that stand behind our fighting men." And, perhaps looking beyond Iowa to his next major challenge next week in New Hampshire, where a resurgent John McCain, a supporter of the war effort in Iraq, is his major worry, Romney laid it on this way: "We also love our president, who has kept us safe these last six years."
One of the attendees at the Romney event was longtime political consultant Mike Murphy, a former McCain aide who also worked in the unsuccessful 1996 presidential campaign of Tennessee's Lamar Alexander. "I'm just a tourist here this time," said Murphy, citing multiple allegiances to various candidates in the field. But he pointedly noted McCain's recent revival as a serious presidential prospect, saying that the Arizona senator and Vietnam war hero might even finish third in Iowa, a state he had once written off.
Former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson had a ghost of a chance, but only if he and not McCain finished third behind Huckabee and Romney. "Or maybe if he finishes a strong fourth -- only, say, 500 votes behind." But Murphy acknowledged, "Fred doesn't seem to have been that strong a candidate."
Musing further, he noted that the recent skein of Tennesseans with presidential hopes - "all potentially strong candidates" - that included on the Republican side former senator Howard Baker, Alexander, and now Thompson seemed all to have misfired because of "bad timing."
Thompson was working the state hard on the eve of the vote, though, conducting a series of Meet and Greet events. He had to compete for audience attention not only with such heavyweight Republicans as Romney, McCain, and Huckabee, but with the Big Three Democrats - Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, who had well-attended overlapping events in the Des Moines area Wednesday night
Most of the field - Republicans and Democrats - will be at it again on Thursday, making their final appeals across the state. The weather appears to be cooperating. Although forecasts indicate continued cold temperatures, they also call for sunny skies.
(Flyer political editor Jackson Baker will be reporting regularly from Iowa and New Hampshire for the next few days.)