I think Mitt Romney would be slightly crazy to not make a full hearted effort to win the Iowa Caucus. Here's why:
-If Mike Huckabee doesn't run, Romney would start out tied for the lead in the state! If you allocate all of Huckabee's supporters to who they said was their second choice on our poll there earlier this month you would end up with Romney and Sarah Palin tied for the lead at 23% each with Newt Gingrich at 18% and no one else with double digits. This is not a state where Romney would have to be coming from behind. Choosing not to compete there would basically be an admission that you assume you're going to blow it.
-Iowa Republicans aren't that conservative, at least compared to Republicans in the country as a whole. Our poll for the caucus earlier this month found that 21% of GOP voters in the state considered themselves to be members of the Tea Party. Our last national poll for Daily Kos put that number at 30% for the party's voters overall across the country. Another measure of the state's comparatively moderate Republican electorate- 69% describe themselves as conservatives to 29% who are moderates. The national GOP primary poll we conducted last week found it at 73% conservatives and 25% moderates. Romney's problem right now is appealing to voters the very conservative wing of the party but that's not quite as large in Iowa as other places.
-So let's say Romney loses Iowa but then wins New Hampshire and Nevada. Sounds similar to Hillary Clinton in 2008. That places a ton of importance on the primary in South Carolina and just as was the case for Clinton that does not seem likely to be a good state for Romney next year. We haven't polled the state in a long time- although we actually will next week- but we do have Republican numbers in North Carolina coming out tomorrow and Romney barely cracks double digits at 11%, putting him in a distant fourth place. Any momentum Romney got from winning in New Hampshire and Nevada could quickly be deflated by getting blown out in South Carolina and put him in a weakened position heading towards Super Tuesday.
The biggest obstacle to Romney winning the nomination might be his Southern problem. If he can run the table in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada he has the potential to clear out the field before that even becomes an issue. Hard to understand why you would write off the possibility of doing that.