By Sam Youngman
AMES, Iowa (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's campaign has a hint of a swagger about it as a good showing looks more likely next week in the Iowa caucuses, where his 2008 campaign crashed badly.
While his staff dampened expectations of winning the caucuses vote this time, large crowds gathered at Romney events in the state and his Iowa poll numbers increased again.
"It's a fair wind that blows in Iowa," Romney mused to no one in particular as he headed toward his campaign bus on Thursday morning. "It's very nice."
The Gallup daily tracking poll on Thursday showed the former Massachusetts governor retaking the lead from the fading campaign of Newt Gingrich.
That was after a CNN survey that also showed Romney in first place, despite putting relatively little time and money into campaigning in Iowa, which opens the 2012 presidential voting season on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Gingrich has struggled under a blitz of negative ads from Romney and his backers while another rival, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, has had to explain racist comments written in his name in the 1990s.
Romney's mood was ebullient as he hit the road again, traversing rural Iowa to shake hands, blast Democratic President Barack Obama's economic policies and urge voters to go to the polls on his behalf.
Supporter Greg Greco told Romney at a campaign stop in Cedar Falls: "You've got this thing. Keep going."
Romney sought to dampen that overconfidence, telling a crowd of about 400, "Sure, I want to win Iowa but everybody wants to win Iowa."
In a push toward the finishing line, Romney's campaign is bringing popular Republican and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to Iowa for campaign events Friday. Christie is seen as a vote-winner among conservatives who are wary about Romney's moderate record as Massachusetts governor.
In 2008, Romney invested heavily in Iowa only to lose to the surprising upstart campaign of Mike Huckabee, ex-governor of Arkansas and a former Baptist preacher, who dominated in Iowa but failed to catch on elsewhere. Senator John McCain of Arizona eventually won the Republican nomination.
Romney's campaign staff has worked overtime to lower expectations this time around. A senior adviser warned that Rick Santorum, who enjoys some of the same Christian conservative support that boosted Huckabee, could overtake Romney by Tuesday.
He said that with Paul's libertarian base apparently holding steady, as few as 5,000 votes could separate the top three finishers.
"I don't expect to win Iowa," the campaign official said, noting that Romney was late to make a full push in Iowa, going on the air with television ads only three weeks ago.
"[Santorum], God love him, he's lived here," the official said, referring to the former Pennsylvania senator's intense campaigning in the state.
There is a core of about 20 percent of Iowan Republicans who describe themselves as moderate and who are likely to back Romney if they turn up at the caucus votes.
Conservatives, many of them evangelical Christians, have dominated Iowa's Republican caucuses in recent years, leaving the moderates dispirited.
Romney's senior campaign adviser in Iowa, David Kochel, said he is "always worried about turnout."
"We're not worried about other candidates; we're worried about finishing strong," Kochel said. "We're looking for a lift, we're looking for momentum and I feel good about where we're at."
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Bill Trott)