AMES, Iowa — Fewer rallies, better result.

AMES, Iowa — Fewer rallies, better result.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney poured millions of dollars into Iowa and spent weeks shaking hands in living rooms and local diners four years ago only to finish second in the Iowa caucuses.

This year, a second-place finish may be considered a small victory and a win will be seen as a knockout victory for the perceived Republican front-runner who, until this week, has primarily campaigned outside Iowa.

“He has downplayed his expectations here,” said Tim Albrecht, who was Romney’s Iowa communications director last time around. “In 2008, expectations were sky high because he had the most campaign staff, put up the most ads and was at the top or near the top in number of appearances. When he got second, people said, ‘Ooh, he spent all that money and time, he should have gotten first.’”

Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, said Romney is walking a similar path that Sen. John McCain took to the 2008 Republican nomination. McCain made little effort in Iowa, finished fourth in the caucuses, but then won in New Hampshire and eventually earned a spot atop the GOP ticket.

“Romney learned from 2008,” Bystrom said. “He spent a ton of money - over $9 million in Iowa - with not a lot to show for it. I don’t know that he’ll win the Iowa caucuses, but I think he’ll finish in the top three if not the top two.”

And that may be good enough. Romney, according to numerous polls, has a sizable lead in New Hampshire, which holds its primary Jan. 10. Second in Iowa and first in New Hampshire likely wouldn’t end the race, but it would solidify Romney as the leader.

“Almost certainly he’s going to win (in New Hampshire), and win it pretty big,” ISU political science professor Steffen Schmidt said. “I think he has the best chance of being nominated and maybe elected against (President Barack) Obama.”

Conventional wisdom is that Iowa voters prefer meet-and-greets to over-the-air campaigning. “Here in Iowa, we tend to take (being ignored) almost personally,” said Cory Adams, chair of the Story County Republican Party.

But Romney may be disproving that.

Romney, who had twice as much money as his next closest GOP rival, has used his financial advantage to advertise extensively on television. Recent polling shows the former governor either ahead in Iowa or a few points behind Ron Paul or Newt Gingrich.

Bystrom said in a recent poll, partially conducted by Iowa State University, that 40 percent of the respondents said they regularly get information from political ads.

The success of those ads may have caused a change of approach in the Iowa campaign’s final days. Romney is in the midst of a three-day bus tour across the state. He’s trying to walk a tightrope - do just enough to possibly win, but not so much that not winning looks like a failure.

Albrecht, now a communications director for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, thinks if Romney comes out on top Tuesday, the race is over.

“I think if he wins here, he wins New Hampshire, and it’s a one-two knockout punch,” Albrecht said. “He doesn’t need to win here. Were he to get a really low finish here, that would damage him in New Hampshire, but he’s doing the right things to prevent that from happening.”

Schmidt isn’t entirely sold on it being over that quickly. He thinks Romney must have a solid finish in the next two primaries after New Hampshire - South Carolina (Jan. 21) and Florida (Jan. 31).

“Whomever the Republicans nominate needs to win in the South, and if he can’t do that, maybe he isn’t electable,” Schmidt said. “If doubts start to come up, not in his ability to beat Obama, but to win the nomination, he could be in trouble.”

The doubts about Romney stem mainly from within his own party. While polling shows he fares the best out of the GOP field in a matchup with President Obama, many conservatives don’t think Romney is one of them. Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson made news last week when he left as campaign chairman for Michele Bachmann and joined the Paul campaign. Speaking to Fox News on Thursday, he said he made the move in part because, “I do not want Mitt Romney running for our nominee.”

He went on to call Romney a “frugal socialist.”

Cheryl Soden who attended a Thursday rally for Romney in Ames, said she likes “everything” about Romney and can’t understand the animus.

“I think he’s an honest, true American that doesn’t go around apologizing for our country,” Soden said. “They say he’s a flip-flopper, well, how many people have never changed their minds? They want to hook Romney to Obama-care, but they are two totally different things. He explains it all in his book, and if you don’t believe that, I guess I can’t help you.”

During an interview with the Ames Tribune editorial board Thursday, Romney acknowledged the change of campaign strategy, noting that in 2008, “We learned there’s no correlation between the money you spend and how well you do.”

Mike Malloy is a reporter for the Ames Tribune.