DES MOINES, Iowa—Former Gov. Mitt Romney joined Republican Joni Ernst to help rally her supporters on Sunday night, encouraging them to help get Ernst over the edge in the Iowa Senate race, which remains in a virtual dead heat.
Romney, the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, has become the go-to star for GOP Senate campaigns across the country as the party seeks to regain control of the chamber this fall. The former Massachusetts governor sounded relaxed and spoke in an almost folksy manner in front of about 150 attendees at the Iowa Farm Bureau headquarters.
"[Joni’s] going to be an extraordinary breath of fresh air there in Washington," he said. "I can’t wait to see her go there and make them squeal," he added, referring to Ernst’s widely discussed ad earlier this year where she touted her experience castrating hogs on an Iowa farm in her youth.
While Romney claims he will not run for president a third time in 2016, political analysts continue to speculate about his chances. A Des Moines Register poll released on Saturday found that likely Iowa voters would slightly favor Romney over presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton—by 44 to 43 percent—in a hypothetical 2016 matchup.
Romney continued to slam President Barack Obama’s foreign policy at the Iowa event, and by extension that of Ernst’s opponent, Rep. Bruce Braley (D., Iowa). Braley has long opposed both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is hesitant about taking more action to combat Islamic State (IS) terrorists in Iraq and Syria.
"The president didn’t think we should be aggressive and assertive and help shape events overseas, and instead he’s pulled back and shrunk our military," Romney said.
"It’s time for the president to apologize to America," he added, rather than express remorse about previous American actions overseas.
Foreign policy has become a salient issue in the Senate race. In the Des Moines Register poll, 59 percent of Iowa voters said U.S. officials should not rule out using ground troops against the Islamic State, which has beheaded American journalists and seized a vast tract of territory extending from northern Syria to western Iraq.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Sunday that defeating the Islamic State remains "a very challenging task." U.S. and allied airstrikes appear to have failed to halt the advance of the Islamic militants in both the Syrian town of Kobani and in the countryside near Baghdad in Iraq, but Obama has ruled out sending more U.S. special operations forces to gather intelligence and work with local forces on the ground.
In a phone interview, Ernst said U.S. ground troops or a more substantial training program for Syrian rebels and Iraqi forces might be required to reverse the gains of the Islamic State. She laid out her criteria for what should accompany any U.S. military action overseas, including actionable intelligence, a clearly defined mission, the necessary provision of resources, a withdrawal plan for bringing troops home, and ensuring their care as veterans. Ernst has served for more than 22 years in the military, including in the Iraq War.
"The senior [military] leadership has now said that it looks like this is not going they way we had planned," she said. "We have such a great threat in the region that it might likely lead to combat troops on the ground, whether it’s other nations or ours."
"What he was doing was putting politics ahead of our men and women in uniform, and that is absolutely unacceptable," she said.
The race remains a virtual tie, according to the Real Clear Politics poll average.
Ernst said she was not sure whether Romney would run again in 2016, but noted that she "has supported him in the last two cycles."