Mitt Romney wants to be the John Kerry of this year's Iowa caucuses, while President Obama wants to be the George W. Bush of the general election. Like Romney, Kerry was an early frontrunner later overshadowed by flashier candidates; his case that he was the more electable candidate led to back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, essentially endeding the Democratic primary in 2004. But while Romney surely hopes the 2004 similarities end there, Obama hopes that's where they begin. The New York Times' Richard W. Stevenson reports that Obama's reelection team has studied how to do what George W. Bush did to Kerry in 2004 -- take bad news (then Iraq; this time, the economy) and turn it to his advantage, while portraying his opponent as a flip-flopper with no convictions.
In January 2004, Kerry's campaign was struggling so much it looked like he might not even make it to New Hampshire. But the campaign of an insurgent who suddenly became the frontrunner, Howard Dean, had done a focus group in Iowa the August before and the findings foreshadowed the caucus results: "if the message moves from change to electability, Kerry was going to win in Iowa," Roger Simon reported. He did, forcing Dick Gephardt to drop out; Dean wasn't in the race much longer after his disastrous caucus night speech. Electability, of course, is one of Romney's core messages. NBC News' First Read writes of Romney, "If he heavily competes and wins, he could wrap up the nomination VERY early, a la John Kerry in '04. 'He could come out here and campaign aggressively and win in Iowa, beat all expectations, and frankly I think put it all away in the first state,' Doug Gross, Romney's 2008 Iowa state chair (who is unaffiliated this cycle) told NBC’s Alex Moe." The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza agrees. But if Romney loses, it would be a gift to one of his rivals.
That's why he's trying to have it both ways, The New York Times' Ashley Parker and Jeff Zeleny report: "He wants to win, but he doesn’t want to invest so deeply that a loss in the Iowa caucuses would prove devastating ... So, the game plan seems to be leaning toward competing aggressively -- but with fewer people and less money than four years ago." The other election in the back of Romney's mind is his failed bid for the Republican nomination in 2008 when he spent a ton of cash and lost to Mike Huckabee in Iowa. On Thursday, Romney visited Iowa for only the third time this year, and told a friendly audience, "There’s a good shot I might become the next president of the United States ... It's not a sure thing, but a good shot." Politico's Alexander Burns says "Romney’s path to victory in Iowa has never been clearer," with Tim Pawlenty having dropped out and Rick Perry struggling, plus several candidates -- Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum -- dividing the evangelical vote. Plus, no one's got a great ground game, "It is amazing that we’re looking at November, and no campaign has announced a 99-county structure. When you organize for the caucus, announcing 99 county chairs is the first thing you check off on the list. This shows a caucus in flux." former Iowa House Speaker Christopher Rants told Burns.
But again, Romney's not the only one looking at 2004. Stevenson reports that Obama's team is "building a narrative in which Mr. Obama made politically brave decisions to do what was right for the economy, even if those decisions were unpopular. It’s a theme that echoes Mr. Bush’s argument in 2004 that he did what it took to keep the country safe, and that even if you disagreed with him, you knew where he stood." And likewise, Obama wants to portray the likely Republican nominee as having no core convictions. Stevenson explains that the strategy is base on an idea of Karl Rove's, that "an election is a choice, not a referendum. By that, he meant that an incumbent’s job is not to prove he is perfect -- it is to prove that he’s better than the other guy." And yes, Stevenson writes, Democrats are aware of the ironies of Obama adopting the strategy of the guy who's record he campaigned against.