NASHUA, Iowa -- Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad on Tuesday said he has warned advisers to Mitt Romney that if the Republican presidential candidate does not spend more time in the Hawkeye State ahead of the Jan. 3 caucuses, he could finish as low as fifth or sixth in the voting and suffer serious damage to his candidacy.
Romney has polled consistently around 20 percent in most statewide polls of likely Iowa caucus-goers, but Branstad said "that's not going to last if he doesn't spend a lot more time and put a lot more effort in here."
"I think he's going to have to put a real effort in here or he's going to be embarrassed," Branstad said in a phone interview. "He's trying to downplay it and keep the expectations down. But if he comes in fifth or sixth here I think it really damages his campaign nationally. Iowa voters are spoiled by attention, and if you have a candidate who does not take them seriously, I think they'll punish him."
Romney's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
The strongly-worded warning from the Republican governor comes after the Romney campaign said Monday that the former Massachusetts governor will campaign for the fourth time this year in Iowa next week, the day before Thanksgiving. But Romney is also skipping a number of major political events here in the Hawkeye State, including a candidate forum in Des Moines on Saturday, as well as a birthday party for the governor, who turns 65 on Thursday.
Romney also skipped another gathering of social conservatives in Iowa in October, and a Nov. 4 dinner in Des Moines organized by the state party.
Romney's approach to the state is based on his 2008 experience, where he spent $10 million and went all out to win over the state's conservative Republican voters, only to finish second to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. That loss was a major blow to Romney's chances at the nomination, and he eventually dropped out of the race.
This year, Romney has avoided Iowa and has done little to organize support here, though his state director David Kochel and a small staff have worked quietly to ensure that a good portion of the 30,000 voters who caucused for them in 2008 -- giving them 25 percent support -- will be with Romney again.
The Romney campaign's calculus, so far, has been that Iowa voters are too fickle and so conservative that going all-in here is too big a risk, Romney advisers have said. As long as Romney finishes in the top two or three, or maybe even fourth, he will have set expectations low and will move on to New Hampshire, where he is expected to win.
However, the lure to come in and contest Iowa more aggressively has grown. The conservative grassroots is still split among five or six candidates. Almost all of these candidates have at one point been the most popular Romney alternative, but all have faded after only a short time. The most recent candidate to catch fire is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who is coming on as former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain fades under fire from sexual harassment allegations.
And Branstad's comments channeled a growing irritation in the state that Romney seems to want to place well in the caucuses without really working hard for Iowans' support. He said he has conveyed this frustration to Ron Kaufman, a longtime Republican political operative, a Washington lobbyist, and a close adviser to Romney.
"My advice to them is, they're trying to avoid the mistake of the last campaign, but I think in so doing they're making another mistake," Branstad said. "Last time they spent a lot of time in Iowa and got expectations way too high. A second-place finish for someone from Massachusetts would be fine, and I think they'd be very happy to come in second here this time."
But, he added, "My feeling is they're gonna blow that if they don't get much more serious about it."