DES MOINES, Iowa – Mitt Romney returned to the airwaves in Iowa Monday with a new ad that takes a more positive tone than the Republican presidential candidate's supporters had been going with before the Christmas break, talking about making government "simpler and smaller and smarter."
"It is a moral imperative for America to stop spending more money than we take in," Romney says in the ad in which he touts his former role as chief executive. "The experience of balancing budgets is desperately needed in Washington and I will take it there."
The ad comes as the former Massachusetts governor -- and all his GOP rivals -- prepare their final sales pitches -- bus tours and all -- ahead of next Tuesday's first-in-the-nation caucuses.
For now Romney is slightly behind Texas Rep. Ron Paul in an average of Iowa polls taken before Christmas, but the statistical dead heat -- which, if the polls' margins of error were reversed, could conceivably be a statistical landslide -- shows Paul with 22.3 percent compared to Romney with 21 percent.
According to the Real Clear Politics average, Newt Gingrich has slipped to 14 percent in Iowa while Rick Perry on the rise with 12 percent.
Perry also has a new ad out, touting his "outsider" status and taking aim at frontrunner Paul by asking if Washington is the problem, why trust a congressman to fix it?
Also in the race are Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who former Arkansas governor and 2008 Iowa GOP victor Mike Huckabee said Sunday could be the sleeper candidate in the caucuses.
Santorum has been banking on the Iowa caucuses to give him some national legitimacy. Having spent considerable time in the Hawkeye State visiting all 99 counties, he spent Monday going pheasant shooting with well-known and socially conservative Iowa Rep. Steve King.
The buzz around Santorum is noteworthy, as his climb steadies while Gingrich's falls. Still, many voters are undecided ahead of the Jan. 3 first-in-the-nation contest, though it won't take much to win among the six candidates vying in the state, particularly if only 100,000 Iowans go to the caucuses -- an all-evening affair very unlike the in-and-out touchscreen vote in many states.
"When you go to a caucus, you drive out for a cold evening in a drafty school house or church fellowship hall, you are there for two or three hours, maybe longer, and you're going to have to stand up in front of your neighbors, in front of your pastor, your doctor, your kid's teachers. You are going to stand up there and you are going to have to declare 'I'm for candidate A.' And everybody in neighborhood knows who you stood for," Huckabee said on "Fox News Sunday," describing the process.
Huckabee's success four years ago is attributed to his massive organization. He had a mailing list of 420,000 evangelicals in Iowa, he went town-to-town recruiting homeschoolers and Christian youth groups.
Nothing close to that has happened this time as candidates rely much more on commercials, debates, social media and cable television to cover the ground that go with fewer meetings. Huckabee noted that could be a disadvantage.
"There may only be 110,000 people voting in the caucus rather than half a million that might be in the primary. But the point is, those 100,000 represent the hardcore political activists and that's why the polls don't necessarily indicate what's going to happen because polls, you pick up the phone and you say, yes, I kind of like so-and-so. Caucus, you got to drive and stand up and be counted for the candidate. It's a very different kind of atmosphere," he said.
With 1,700 locations holding caucuses statewide, voters will hear five-minute speeches from each campaign's representatives, then write in their choice. If more than 120,000 show up, that would be a record turnout. Weather is a contributing factor, and forecasts today show a mild Jan. 3.
If a candidate has signed up 40,000 supporters to attend the caucuses, that's an easy win, which is part of the reason Paul is the candidate to watch. He has a devoted following that is organized and energized even though the Texas congressman is retracting racist sentiments that appeared in newsletters in the 1990s written under his name.
And if organization is the name of the game, it's Paul and Romney, in fact, who are the ones fully able to compete nationally.
But before that, they must win the expectations game in Iowa, and while Santorum could be the benefactor of persistence as well as late buzz, both Paul and Romney are playing it close to the vest.
Paul, who is popular with conservatives, will return to Iowa this week to meet with supporters he has kept in touch with since his unsuccessful run in 2008. Romney, who has kept the state at arm's length for most of the year, is courting supporters in phone calls on Monday as well as a speech Tuesday evening.
But it's not time to count Gingrich out yet. Last week, he criticized the negative tone of the campaign, but now he's ready to take the challenge directly to Romney on the economy, an issue Romney has made central to his campaign.
Meanwhile, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has bowed out of Iowa, keeping focus on New Hampshire, which votes in the first-in-the-nation primary one week after Iowa's caucuses.