Here's a (relatively) easy way to picture what Mitt Romney has to do to win the White House:
First, he has to win every state John McCain won in 2008. That shouldn't be a problem.
Then he has to win Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana -- three states McCain should have won in '08. That won't be easy -- right now, Virginia and North Carolina are tossups -- but it's very doable.
Next, Romney has to win two big ones: Florida and Ohio. They're tossups, too, with the RealClearPolitics average of polls giving President Obama a one-point edge in Florida and a 1.8 percent margin in Ohio. Still, it's doable, especially since some of the polls in the averages were taken before Romney got at least a small boost from picking Paul Ryan as his running mate.
But even if Romney does all that, if he takes Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, Florida and Ohio from the Obama column, he still has to win one more state from Obama's '08 total. It could be Wisconsin, it could be New Hampshire, it could be Colorado. But to judge by recent campaign activity, if Romney is fortunate to make it to the brink of electoral victory, the major battle for those last few electoral votes could be in the state where it all started: Iowa.
If, more than 80 days away from an election, the president of the United States spends three days riding around on a bus in a single state, as Barack Obama did in Iowa last week, you know that state is important. And if a newly picked vice presidential candidate heads straight to that state, as Ryan did last week, and if the Republican nominee plans to go there Wednesday and many more times before November -- well, you know Iowa is important.
"I believe Iowa is the key to the presidency," says Bob Vander Plaats, head of the Iowa social conservative group the Family Leader. "Our six electoral votes will be crucial."
Of course, for months leading up to January's GOP caucuses, Iowa was home to some of the most anti-Romney conservatives in the GOP. Many Iowa Republicans tried Michele Bachmann, and then Rick Perry, and then Herman Cain, and then Newt Gingrich, and then Rick Santorum, who beat Romney by a handful of votes.
Feelings about Romney didn't change overnight. But they've changed now. "The desire to get Barack Obama out of the White House is enough, and now the addition of Paul Ryan to the ticket has been motivation to get people not only to vote but to volunteer and work," says Matt Strawn, former head of the Iowa GOP who is now running the Republican group GOPAC's operations in Iowa.
Vander Plaats, who backed Santorum in the primaries, recently held a Family Leadership Summit in Waukee, featuring Santorum along with Mike Huckabee and Rick Perry. "We had about 1,200 of the most influential conservatives in Iowa, and they were excited," says Vander Plaats. "They were excited about getting rid of Obama, excited about Ryan being on the ticket." And if they have any lingering doubts about Romney, they've been put aside in the effort to beat Obama.
Iowa's unemployment rate is 5.3 percent, the sixth-best in the nation. Its cities have some of the lowest rates in the country: Iowa City, 4.2 percent; Ames, 4.5 percent; Des Moines 5.3 percent. In contrast, the jobless rate in Florida is 8.8 percent.
It's reasonable to theorize that Iowa's relatively low unemployment might lead some voters to stick with Obama. After all, they're not suffering as much as residents of other parts of the country. But unemployment aside, there's not a lot of happiness about the state of business in Iowa.
"People have jobs, but the economy is sluggish, we're in the middle of a drought, and people are sitting on money," says Sam Clovis, the influential conservative radio host in Sioux City who also teaches business and economics at local Morningside College. "It's the economy." Iowans aren't suffering the misery of high unemployment, but they're not happy.
Meanwhile, Obama has helped turn Iowa into a Republican state. Strawn remembers his first day as head of the state GOP, when there were 113,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Iowa. Now, there are 20,000 more Republicans than Democrats.
Still, Strawn calls Iowa "the absolute purest of tossups."
"There's no question the opportunity exists for Romney to close the deal with those Iowans who voted for Obama the last time but are willing to vote against him now," he says. "But the case still has to be made."
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.