Romney Gears Up in Iowa With New Hampshire on the Horizon

A loss in Iowa doesn't mean Romney's campaign is kaput.

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Second time's the charm. At least that's what Mitt Romney is hoping as GOP presidential candidates prepare to square off in Iowa next week.

But how important is a win in Iowa for Romney? While a blowout loss might undermine confidence in his ability to garner support in subsequent primaries, a second-place finish wouldn't drive the last nails into the coffin of Romney's campaign either, experts say.

In fact, it's probably wise for Romney to downplay the importance of Iowa, says Andrew Smith, associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. "New Hampshire is the place where he's expected to do very well and if he doesn't meet expectations that would be more harmful to his campaign than a slim win or second-place finish in Iowa," he says. "It's more the managing of expectations the Romney campaign should be concerned about."

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It comes down to the demographics and turnout of Republican voters in the two states. While Iowa typically has lower turnout and voters centralized around church hubs, New Hampshire usually sees upwards of 50 percent turnout and is one of the least religious states in the Union, according to a Gallup poll.

"We have higher turnout in New Hampshire, which means that it's not activists who are determining who wins," Smith says. "That's the biggest difference between New Hampshire and Iowa."

That means while religious and social issues will likely take center stage in Iowa, they'll play a lesser role in New Hampshire, where name recognition and moderate politics generally win out.

In New Hampshire, candidates have to appeal to the average voter, Smith adds, something Romney is better positioned to do than in Iowa, where the socially conservative, evangelical vote is much more important.

While he's taken heat for it from other GOP hopefuls, Romney's message tends to resonate well with moderate Republicans, which should give him a good boost in New Hampshire. When it comes the top social issues of our time--gay marriage and abortion--likely primary voters in New Hampshire are almost equally likely as not to support gay marriage and are more pro-choice than the country is as a whole, Smith says.

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"[New Hampshire is] just not the kind of place you're going to do well with the socially conservative message," Smith adds. "That's why you see most social conservatives really not spending that much time here. They're not bothering because their message just isn't going to resonate."

In the end, the upcoming battle in Iowa is much less important for Romney than the face-off in New Hampshire in a few weeks. Lucky for him, it's not very often a candidate wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, primarily because the electorates are so different.

But if he loses in New Hampshire, his campaign is over, Smith says. "He has to win here," he adds.

Still there's hope for Romney in Iowa. Iowans have not settled on a Republican favorite and Romney has continued on with his slow-and-steady campaign, even as he gears up for New Hampshire.

mhandley@usnews.com

Twitter: @mmhandley