Power Play

Romney Eyes Iowa in Bid for Speedy Nomination

Romney Tries on His Track Shoes; Scandal Fills in Blanks on Cain’s Bio; Obama and GOPers Face Tough Questions on Iran Nukes

Romney Eyes Iowa in Bid for Speedy Nomination

"The future of Medicare should be marked by competition, by choice and by innovation, rather than bureaucracy, stagnation and bankruptcy."

-- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaking at the Americans for Prosperity summit in Washington on Friday.

Can Mitt Romney win Iowa? Absolutely.

Can he be denied the nomination if he does? Probably not.

Romney is following last week’s rollout of his fiscal plan by heading to the Hawkeye State today to test whether he could win the famously conservative Iowa Republican presidential caucuses, now just eight weeks away.

Romney, a moderate Mormon from Massachusetts, has a tough pitch in a state party dominated by heartland conservatives and evangelical Christians. But he managed a second-place finish in 2008 by using his personal wealth to build a massive state organization and by capitalizing on conservative disenchantment with Sen. John McCain. Folks who weren’t going to embrace Iowa favorite Mike Huckabee but disdained Washington insider McCain went for businessman Romney.

While there is a risk for Romney in making a play for Iowa if he is rejected by caucus participants, that risk diminishes by the day. With conservatives split between Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry and considerable local support for Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Sen. Rick Santorum, Romney could easily drive to the front of a divided field if he decides to step on the gas.

Romney continues to be a luckier, Republican version of Hillary Clinton of four years ago. Clinton made a belated decision to dive into Iowa in a bid to try to lock up her party’s nomination and kill off her most credible challengers, Barack Obama and John Edwards. But Edwards was a paper tiger and Obama had been working hard to lock up support from the activist base of the state still unhappy about their settling for John Kerry in 2004.

Romney could face the kind of field Clinton had hoped for – divided and distracted and win with less than a third of vote.

And if he were to win in Iowa, the GOP primary process, designed to go long and provide springtime drama, would likely shrink to the span of just a few weeks as dissenting GOP voters would either fall in line or just sit out their states’ primaries.

Little noticed in the Cain sex harassment circus was Romney’s speech to the conservative group Americans for Prosperity on Friday in which Romney embraced a modified version of Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to voucherize Medicare.

That’s a big matzo ball for Romney to hang out there. Part of his strategy knocking off former frontrunner Perry has been to savage the Texan for his tough talk about Social Security. Romney has lectured Republicans at length about the dangers of allowing Democrats to badger their nominee with entitlement scare tactics.

But Romney came out in favor of an optional privatization of Medicare in which the existing benefits would be offered alongside new insurance vouchers that Democrats will argue would eventually put the government program out of business.

Democrats are acting gleeful about the chance of running against a half-billionaire who wants to end Medicare as we know it. It’s a calculated risk for Romney, though. By making this move to the right, he expands his chances of solidifying his support among traditional Republicans and dampening the disdain for him in the small-government, activist core of the party.

Romney, who is often painted as a flip-flopper for his evolving positions on guns, abortion, global warming and other things, has less latitude than most candidates to make a mid-campaign recalibration. But entitlement reform would be a good one.

That’s the issue that GOP big brains have said is getting ignored and the Mitch Daniels-Ryan wing of the party have been unhappy that Romney took so many shots at Perry over the subject. Romney staking out a Ryan stance will give those folks a reason to come in from the cold and accept Romney as their inevitable nominee.

Bill Kristol wrote a poignant piece in the Weekly Standard about conservatives needing to give up on their hopes for another Ronald Reagan and another 1980. It read like a preamble to a Romney endorsement.

But while the GOP establishment could learn to live with Romney, especially if the frontrunner continues to make nods to the right wherever feasible, there is another concern: the calendar.

If Republicans were to select Romney and crown him on Super Tuesday in March, that would leave the Obama Democrats six months before the conventions in which to harass Romney and six months for Romney to annoy GOP base voters by trying to make himself look attractive to moderates in places like the Philadelphia suburbs.

On the upside, there is lots of GOP cash sitting on the sidelines – Dan Balz of the Washington Post reported Sunday that the GOP field combined had raked in just $85 million through the third quarter compared to $230 million at a similar point in the 2008 cycle. Once he was inevitable, Romney would start to haul in some of that dough and would have time to staff up a national organization that could at least start to rival President Obama’s.

Many conservatives argued that a long nominating process would be good because it would keep the Democrats from zeroing in on a winner and, if Romney were to win such a slugfest, that he would be made a better candidate in the process. And Romney’s strategy suggested he rather agreed.

But with the new move for a quick victory, Romney raises a new set of challenges. If Romney were to be crowned in March, how would Republicans keep old goods looking fresh to voters?

Sexy Story Sheds Light on Cain’s Biography

“The allegations against his program -- his liking the Federal Reserve and his national sales tax – yeah, they are very legitimate. And his support for bailouts, those allegations are very legitimate. Those other allegations are -- these problems that he has now -- I think the media has blown them way out of proportion.”

-- Rep. Ron Paul on “FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace

There were several moments during this weekend’s quasi-debate between Herman Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich that Cain played affable Ed McMahon to the star of the show.

Cain didn’t seem too worried about it, at one point considering a question about entitlement reform and then turning to Gingrich to say, "You go first, Newt."

The debate, run by a Texas Tea Party group, was billed as a “modified Lincoln-Douglas debate.” The only one of those three things on which it delivered was the “modified” part. The thing it most seemed like was a commentary reel on the bonus features section on a DVD with Cain and Gingrich musing and teasing and chuckling at inside jokes.

It was also a welcome relief for Cain, who struggled with a week of hostile questioning from a frothing press corps about sexual harassment claims from the late 1990s. Providing punch lines or setups for the professorial Gingrich was a sweet spot for Cain, while facing barking reporters was not.

When Cain shot to the top of the GOP pack as conservatives fled from Texas Gov. Rick Perry following his poor debate performances, the appeal was that Cain was a hard-boiled conservative who wouldn’t get flustered under fire, like Perry did in butting heads with frontrunner Mitt Romney. Cain could face down President Obama, GOPers thought, because he would undercut Obama’s subtle message on race and present conservative principles in a cheerful, Reaganesque way.

Cain lost some ground on the flustery front last week with 96 hours of inconsistencies and misplaced counterattacks. The campaign has found some discipline and is pushing back on reporters who want to continue to ask about the allegations now that the first accuser has opted to stand silent on the facts of the case.

(The campaign is even handing out the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics to chide nosy reporters, a move sure to deepen the resolve of the Washington press corps to bust Cain.)

Cain has lost some of his magic in his missteps, because Republicans know that even if the coverage is unfair, the scrutiny would multiply a thousand-fold if Cain did manage to secure the nomination. When conservatives claimed another “high-tech lynching” it was a tacit admission that Cain’s blackness would not provide a shield from the establishment press.

But this is a procedural kind of argument. Cain could use his sympathetic fundraising bump to build an organization and bring on new, more experienced staffers. That part is recoverable.

Perhaps more damaging than the sexy stuff is the biographical part of all this. Cain was little known except as a rare black conservative and a successful businessman. Many admirers believed that he was still the president of Godfather’s Pizza or hard recently left that job, not a 16-year-old resume point.

His appeal was based on his confident ways and down-home humor but mostly on the fact that Cain was a Tea Party kind of guy, not a career politician. An outsider.

But in explaining what happened to end up with three accusations of harassment against him, Cain had to shed light on a chapter of his career he had previously discussed very little: his nearly three years leading the lobbying efforts for the restaurant association.

The sex stuff drew all kinds of attention to Cain and to his time working in Washington wooing lawmakers and entertaining members of his organizations: cocktails, corporate apartments, etc.

This goes to the argument Rep. Ron Paul and his supporters have been making against Cain for some time: that Cain is part of the GOP establishment as much as Perry or Gingrich – maybe even Romney. They point to his work leading the board of the Kansas City Federal Reserve and supporting the now-infamous Troubled Asset Relief Program as evidence in their claims.

If Cain is caught in a lie or some bombshell evidence emerges (and rest assured there are hundreds of reporters looking right now) of Cain being more than just “not politically correct,” the sex stuff could still bring Cain’s viability to a rapid close. But even if Cain avoids further titillation, last week damaged core parts of the Cain brand.

‘Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran’ Reprised?

“Let them publish and see what happens.”

-- Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister and former nuclear top official, talking to the country’s semiofficial Mehr News Agency about a pending International Atomic Energy Agency report said to show Iran on the cusp of having nuclear weapons.

Watching Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s corpse taken around Libya like the Stanley Cup by Western-backed rebels surely reminded the leaders of Iran’s theocracy how very useful a nuclear weapons program can be.

The Euros and the Obama administration might not have been so sanguine about deposing the crackpot despot if he hadn’t handed over his nuclear program to Condi Rice and the Bush administration in 2003. Kim Jong Il would long ago have been stopped from tormenting his own people and annoying his own neighbors if he didn’t have his tiny hands on some fissile material.

But the Iranians also know that the Israelis won’t stand by and let a country dedicated to their elimination become a nuclear power. Israel is the only nuclear power in the region and they aim to keep it that way.

The news today is that the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has found evidence that Iran, using Russian and Pakistani know how, is much closer than previously believed to having a usable bomb and the means to drop it on Tel Aviv.

That puts Iran much closer to the prospect of war with Israel while it actually reduces the chance of military action by the United States. But it also raises the specter of a nuclear arms race in the worst neighborhood in the world. In a place where governments fall with increasing regularity, the U.S. could be looking at a half-dozen mini-Pakistans: Unstable nuclear powers with the threat of terrorists getting hold of the stuff expanding geometrically.

The political test for President Obama and the Republican field is acute.

Obama has shielded himself from hawks on the right by embracing much of George W. Bush’s foreign and defense policies. But he has helped to dampen the enthusiasm of the Democratic base by being such an interventionist.

The Republican contenders, meanwhile, have struggled to find a way to sound tough but not scare off war-weary voters eager for an end to nation-building and endless overseas commitments.

Iran going nuclear would be a huge embarrassment for Obama’s “smart power” foreign policy of engagement in the region. If the Israelis decide to knock down the hornet’s nest of a big nation with a big military, it would be up to Obama whether he would back our ally and warn Tehran against reprisals for the preemptive strike.

While Obama has found a way to play Goldilocks on foreign policy, this would be an either or proposition and on it would hang the question of a massive conflagration in the Middle East. If Obama didn’t back Tel Aviv, he would be inviting Iran to counterattack, leaving the Israelis dangling. But if he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel, then he will be sorely upsetting a big chunk of the Democratic base.

For the Republicans, the question is how hard of a line to take. They have, other than Ron Paul, been clear that they would not allow Tehran to have nukes, but now a hypothetical becomes concrete. Would you bomb Iran? Would you back Israel if they did?

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily Fox News Halftime Report political news note and co-hosts the hit podcast, Perino & Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What. He also is the host of Power Play, a feature video series on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on network programs, including America’s Newsroom, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. He also provides expert political analysis for FNC’s coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.