PELLA, Iowa—Mitt Romney wants to know about the wall. He walks into the headquarters of Vermeer, a manufacturer that employs more people than any other company in this small city, and sees a concrete wall embedded with little knickknacks and propellers and widgets. It looks like a particularly wide, and particularly grim, rock-climbing wall.
"So it looks like you've put some components in the concrete!" says Romney. "That's pretty fun!"
It's the "fossil wall," explains his guide, studded with trinkets from the company's products. "There are employees who can point to that and say, 'I know what that goes to.' "
"Isn't that something!" says Romney. He gets to the conference room where 14 local business leaders and about three times that number of reporters are waiting for him. He contemplates the checked shirt and khakis he's put on today.
"I left my sport coat in the car," says Romney. "But I guess you won't mind if I'm underdressed!"
This is a room full of people who are paid to outthink other businesses, and people who are paid to be cynical. There's no reason to believe that Romney forgot the jacket. He is making only three stops on this trip—four if you count his second televised debate appearance Thursday night. He flew down from Chicago in coach, and he'll be shuttling to his events in a regular-sized SUV; there's no bus with a Death Star-sized painting of his face, no stadium sound. His challenge is to look and sound low-key without sounding like he's phoning it in. That means shirtsleeves.
The event is coordinated to provide a minimum of news. Romney, at the head of the table, asks the businessmen to tell him "what we can do in Washington to make the private sector more competitive globally."
"When I go across the country and I hear from small businesses," he says, "time and again—I hear, 'Gosh, I used to be getting loans from my community bank, and I can't anymore. They're not loaning money.' Time and time again. Then I meet with bankers, and I say, I'm hearing this. Why is that? They say they don't know which regulations are coming down the pike."
He promises to sit back and listen.
"I'm Denny Van Zanten from the Pella Corporation," says Denny Van Zanten of the Pella Corporation.
"Denny!" says Romney.
"You've talked about the uncertainty," says Van Zanten. "What can we do to have some teamwork between the government to get rid of some of that and to create a positive attitude right here in the ol' U.S. of A?"
Romney nods thoughtfully over an hour of short statements like this. After each of the masters of industry and banking speak, he shares a minute or so of wisdom.
"There is the perception—and in my view, the reality—that the administration has been an anti-business administration," he says. "What the administration needs to be doing is working out trade agreements. Now, I'll see if I've got the correct numbers, but I believe that Asian and European countries have added 47 bilateral trade agreements in the last two and a half years. And we've added none."
Why can't the whole caucuses process be so civilized? When Romney wraps, electronics- component manufacturer and winery owner Robert Wersten talks about how clearly superior this guy is for the presidency, and how it might not matter.
"You get to see the inside of the Republican Party in these caucuses," he says. "My wife and I will go, and often there'll be five or six of us, total, who are making arguments and talking. And then there'll be a bunch of ninnies who just make arguments and don't reason with anyone."
In 2007, Mitt Romney introduced himself to Iowans with millions of dollars in TV ads, an overwhelming campaign to win the straw poll, and gimmicks like a 99-county bus tour led by his son Josh. ("We think he's still in the 98th county somewhere," jokes Romney's eldest son, Tagg, along for the ride today.) That effort, according to Republicans here, gave Romney a floor of support that you can see in polls—around 20 percent or so, enough to finish in the top three of Iowa with a little work.
How much is a little? Romney is skipping the straw poll this year, to spend money on "contests that will select some delegates," and also to avoid another situation like 2007, where he dumped enough cash to win the informal poll of Republican voters only to watch the media reward the second-place finisher. Let Michele Bachmann own the hype. Let Tim Pawlenty rent his old campaign office, do Mike Allen's "Playbook" breakfast, and build a double-digit paid staff. (So far, Romney has three full-time Iowa staffers.) Let Rick Perry come here on Sunday and start from scratch. Romney can be the candidate of the anti-ninnies. Sarah Palin came to Pella and had a block party/pity-fest for a documentary that ended up flopping. Romney comes here, talks to masters of industry, and scoots.
"The president said if he didn't turn the economy around in three years, he'd be looking at a one-term proposition," says Romney after the roundtable. "Well, it's almost three years. He's looking at a one-term proposition."
On Wednesday the campaign is still celebrating a Politico feature that described a panicky, resigned White House assuming that Romney will be the Republican nominee. It's not an official celebration; officially, there's outrage that some anonymous Democrat used the word kill—instead of the more appropriate post-Giffords-shooting crush or smother—to describe the anti-Romney plan. There's no attempt to tamp down speculation over the word "about a dozen" Democrats used to describe Romney: weird. There are analysts who think weird is code for Mormon. Another possibility: It could describe a candidate who looks at a wall of art and describes it as "components," who's selling himself as a Moses come to lead the jobless schlub and the panicky, uncertainty-haunted businessman out of the desert.
Romney leaves Pella and makes his way an hour up the road to Des Moines. He's the honored guest at a Polk County Republican fundraiser at the home of Nick Van Patten, a wholesaler of home products who flits around the party in a pinstriped suit. As they wait for Romney, the guests (they paid at least $50 for tickets) play bocce ball, eat mini-pulled-pork sandwiches, or ask Fox News reporter Carl Cameron to pose for pictures near his camera setup at the pool. Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and other candidates have already been to previous county party fundraisers, and these people aren't necessarily sold on Romney yet.
"He's got a big fish hook in him," warns Jack Salzeider, a commodities trader who wears one ring made of gold from the Black Hills of South Dakota and one ring that contains a slice of every stone that's mined in Arizona. "That's Romneycare. I'm still waiting to hear from Rick Perry—he might be the guy."
As the party goes on, Politico will drop another story about Romney that these voters won't like. In 2004, when he made a pitch to Standard & Poor's that got them to raise Massachusetts's credit rating, tax hikes were part of the offer. Romney only spent four years in elective office, and these are the sorts of problems he has to overcome: He cut deals. But compare that to Romney's problem last time around: He saw an opening to run to the right of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani on social issues, got there, and then discovered that Mike Huckabee had already bought up all the real estate. He was attacked as wishy-washy on Iraq—remember that?—because he wasn't as supportive of the troop surge as McCain was.
Now all anyone's worried about is the economy. Romney can handle that. He takes the stage in Nick Van Patten's backyard and promises the businessmen and investors that he's going to listen to them.
"I like you guys!" says Romney. "I don't think the president likes you very much!" This is a joke. "I'm only kidding about that. But I like you people. I like that you pay taxes. I like that you grow our economy.
He's looking ahead. In a brief, 12-minute address, Romney doesn't tell anyone to go vote for him in the straw poll. "I need a few votes," he says. "I want to get the delegates from Iowa."