BOSTON – Forget the national polls for Mitt Romney.
Slowly, methodically, the Republican presidential contender has seized the advantage in the early states that count, relying on a solid organization, $4 million in advertising and an aggressive approach.
It's propelled him to the top of polls in the caucus and primary sites of Iowa and New Hampshire, and laid the foundation for what some analysts argue is greater success.
"Mitt Romney is now positioned as the front-runner for the nomination," said Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. "There's a long way to go, but to date he's running the most logical, thought-out, structured campaign. He's marching in the right cadence, he's raising the money, he's spending it wiser and he seems to be on track."
Romney continues to trail former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and even former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee — who has yet to declare his candidacy formally — in national polls of the Republican contenders.
But recent surveys show the former Massachusetts governor leading in the first states to vote, bolstering his strategy of using momentum from strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire to push him ahead in South Carolina and Florida a week later. In rapid-fire succession, at least 15 states from New York to California hold contests Feb. 5 that will likely produce the GOP nominee.
The path is far from easy for Rommney, who has been dogged by criticism that he has switched positions on abortion, embryonic stem cell research and gay marriage — issues critical with GOP conservatives. He also is vying to become the first Mormon president, a potential problem with Southern evangelicals who consider the faith a cult.
And then there's Massachusetts, a state well-known for its liberal tradition, which may be a particularly hard sell in conservative circles. Romney's resume there is thin — just one term as governor.
Romney was campaigning in Iowa this weekend, his 11th trip to the lead caucus state and among the most of any candidate. Romney has also outpaced his rivals with eight visits to neighboring New Hampshire, where he has a summer home, and 10 to South Carolina, another state where he just won a straw poll among Republican women.
Unlike others, though, Romney is now on his second and third meetings with top political leaders in the early voting states. His "Ask Mitt Anything" town hall meetings with the public have become a campaign trail staple. He's also not above stroking local egos, praising Iowans and New Hampshire residents for their close scrutiny of the candidates and arguing that their states should remain the first to vote.
"The aggressiveness, the early aggressiveness, was a huge boon to him," said Chuck Laudner, executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa. "They sent a DVD out in the mail, glossy fliers. It cemented him as a front-runner here in Iowa in April and May. They didn't just come here at the end of the process like the others."
Reed said Romney's organizational strength is the primary reason Giuliani and McCain decided to skip the Aug. 11 Iowa straw poll, a political beauty contest that Romney and his team had targeted.
Romney has pummeled the early states with TV advertising, part of an unprecedented $4 million early buy fueled by a record $21 million he raised during the first three months of the year. That total far surpassed Giuliani's $13.6 million and McCain's $12.5 million, a pecking order the Romney camp hopes to repeat when the second quarter ends June 30.
His campaign is organizing a second "National Call Day" this month at the TD Banknorth Garden, where the Boston Bruins and Celtics play, so supporters can seek donations within their business and social circles. The first day, in January, raised $6.5 million. The campaign has also scheduled a barbecue at Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, as part of its fundraising plan.
A former venture capitalist, Romney also could tap some of his own personal wealth. With assets of between $190 million and $250 million, he is the wealthiest candidate in the field.
"I think you reap what you sow, and Governor Romney has been running the most traditional campaign in New Hampshire for the longest time," said Fergus Cullen, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee.
"They're following the path that was walked by John McCain in 1999," Cullen added. "If you look back at George Bush's loss in 2000 (in the New Hampshire primary), you can trace it back to his decision to blow off the Dartmouth College debate in the fall of 1999. That sent a message that he didn't believe he had to do all the things that the others were doing."
Romney is operating on the notion that he can win the GOP nomination if he starts small and his momentum grows. That is why he has been so dismissive of national polling, where he lags, and buoyed by the state-by-state surveys, where he has led.
Earlier this month in an interview with The Associated Press, Romney explained his strategy.
"I think the national polls are largely name awareness at this stage," he said, "but as time goes on, name awareness is replaced by 'does the message connect' and 'have you built a good grass-roots organization' and 'have you raised enough money to get out there?' "