Authors: By THOMAS BEAUMONT and KASIE HUNT
SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) -- Mitt Romney hadn't been to Iowa in two months. But Thursday he was back - and suddenly talking about winning it.
Sensing an opening, the former Massachusetts governor is ramping up his efforts here little more than 10 weeks before the state's presidential caucuses lead off the 2012 Republican nominating contests.
"I will be here again and again, campaigning here. I'd love to win Iowa. Any of us would," Romney said, answering a voter's question at a campaign event at Morningside College in Sioux City.
At his next stop, in rural Treynor, east of Council Bluffs, Romney sounded confident when he told his audience: "There's a good shot I might become the next president of the United States. It's not a sure thing, but it's a good shot."
His daylong trip through the most conservative part of the state came as polls show him at the top of the GOP field in the wake of a series of strong debate performances. His campaign is taking a more aggressive approach to Iowa in hopes that an outright victory will propel him into the New Hampshire primary and states beyond.
Until now, Romney has had a relatively low-key presence in Iowa.
He lost here in 2008 when he tried to convince voters he was a strong cultural conservative. But he couldn't sway influential evangelical conservatives - they are concentrated heavily in the western part of the state and play an important role in the GOP caucuses - to overlook their skepticism of his Mormon faith and his reversals on abortion and gay rights.
This time, Romney has been talking almost exclusively to business leaders about the economy in hopes of picking up support across the GOP's ideological spectrum. He's counting on his rivals, seen as more conservative, to divide the support of pastors, Christian home-school activists and evangelicals in general. They have not rallied around any one of his opponents as they did Mike Huckabee four years ago.
No single alternative to Romney has emerged here. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann are making big plays for the state but, so far, haven't been able to get evangelicals to coalesce. Among other candidates in the field fighting for their support are former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, businessman Herman Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
With the Jan. 3 caucuses coming into focus, Romney has decided to dig into a still wide-open race. Most state lawmakers remain on the sidelines, along with top GOP officials. Sen. Chuck Grassley, for instance, said Wednesday he plans not to endorse a candidate before the caucuses.
There are risks. Should the former Massachusetts governor play hard in Iowa only to lose again, he'll be weakened.
In recent weeks, Romney's staff has started growing, though it remains lean by 2008 standards, when he blanketed the state's 99 counties with staffers, spent $10 million on TV and made dozens of visits.
This year, his handful of caucus organizers has been in close touch with his past supporters and birddogged county party organizations. They are building niche support groups with small business owners and the state's thriving agribusiness sector.
He's spent most of this year campaigning elsewhere and trying to lower any expectations that he will win in Iowa. He's spent no money on advertising in the state, and he made only his third trip this year on Thursday.
It came a week after a Perry supporter called Romney's religion a cult and just days after Perry and Romney tangled over illegal immigration, with the Texas governor recalling a 5-year-old episode in which illegal immigrations had been working on Romney's lawn.
But such issues - as well as other hot-button cultural issues like gay marriage and abortion - were all but absent at his events Thursday.
In Sioux City, Romney faced a friendly audience that questioned him primarily on jobs and economic issues.
Drawing a contrast to Perry at one point, Romney noted that he vetoed, as governor of Massachusetts, legislation like that which Perry signed in Texas allowing children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition. And he alluded to the attack he used against Perry in the debate, when he claimed that many of the jobs created in Texas went to illegal immigrants. His answers drew applause.
In Treynor, Romney bantered about the price of corn and types of cattle with a carefully assembled group of local business and community leaders. The discussion covered farming, education, clean coal, Israel and, of course, ethanol, critical to the local economy.
"I'm a friend of ethanol and at the same time I don't want to say that I'm going to be proposing new legislation to provide new subsidies," Romney said, walking a careful line of fiscal responsibility in front of an audience that's heavily invested in the ethanol industry.
"I think that time is now completed and we'll move on to encourage the availability for the American people to purchase ethanol on a choice basis," he said.
Perhaps to avoid having to wade into cultural issues, Romney typically holds his Iowa events in places of business where the focus is on the economy.
The business roundtable was at a local bank; in Council Bluffs he's stopping at the local Chamber of Commerce. And while Romney is among seven GOP candidates for president visiting Iowa in the coming days, he will miss a multicandidate event in Des Moines on Saturday, hosted by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group dominated by evangelical conservatives.