Political Mercury

Roberts sees winning role model in S.D. governor

by Douglas Burns

In 2002 South Dakotans were shocked when a decided underdog captured the Republican gubernatorial primary in a three-way race over two better-known and more highly funded opponents.

That upstart, the now popular incumbent governor, Mike Rounds, ran a campaign in which he put out an upbeat message.

Meanwhile, the favored candidates, South Dakota Attorney General Mark Barnett and former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby, used much larger campaign war chests to attack each other.

The decent guy, five-term state senator from Pierre, Rounds, who had been written off by the punditry as, well, too nice and poorly financed to win, surprised the establishment. He pulled 44 percent of the vote for a clear win in the primary.

State Rep. Rod Roberts, R-Carroll, is looking to reprise Rounds’ role, Iowa- style, in 2010. The dynamics are sure similar in the Iowa Republican primary: two high-profile politicians with money and that third guy, the one who looks dignified, dare we say, gubernatorial, and doesn’t lose his cool.

Each day brings us ample evidence that the South Dakota scenario could unfold for Roberts in his run for governor of Iowa.

In a Des Moines Register debate last week, former GOP Gov. Terry Branstad — at times shaking his head in such earnest that he resembled a sassy backup singer for a rap musician — said rival Bob Vander Plaats’ memory was off on a conversation some years ago. Or worse.

“Either that or you’re just flat-out lying,” Branstad said of a Vander Plaats statement that the two had talked before the 2002 race about how the latter man’s lack of a governing record would be an asset because Democrats have fewer targets at which to shoot.

Vander Plaats, a Sioux City business consultant, went so far at one point to say some attacks on Branstad’s record in advertising from a liberal group, Iowans For Responsible Government, are fair.

“A lot of the records are footnoted,” Vander Plaats said. “They’re true.”

A few days earlier, an e-mail popped into my inbox from Vander Plaats’ campaign.

It was yet again another attack on Branstad. Vander Plaats is playing old-school politics: attack your strongest opponent to build up yourself.

You can’t blame him, really. Negative campaigning works.

At issue this time in the Bob Vander Plaats spin room is the fact that Branstad had a heart procedure at Iowa Methodist Hospital earlier this month. Team Vander Plaats wants us to appreciate that Branstad is mortal and has a track record of selecting moderate Republican women as running mates — the kind of women who don’t shoot wolves from helicopters or want to see raped teen-age girls who have abortions treated like the wives of Henry VIII.

“Joy Corning was a pro-choice, pro-gay-rights activist back when Gov. Branstad chose her as his running mate in 1990,” Vander Plaats says in the release.

For his part, Roberts says the GOP can’t go into November with a divided party. He’s increasingly witnessing party infighting between supporters of Branstad and Vander Plaats.

There’s a real concern that supporters of those two candidates for governor won’t back the other in the general election because of the ill will being built up now.

“I’ve been traveling and listening, and it is there,” Roberts said of the friction between the Branstad and Vander Plaats camps.

Which brings us back to South Dakota and the primary in 2002. It got real messy, real fast, observers of that campaign season tell me. Kirby, the former lieutenant governor and a businessman with deep pockets, went negative on Barnett. The two went back and forth, watching poll numbers move a few points here with a negative ad, and few a points there with tough responses. Meanwhile, they just forgot about Rounds.

In the end, South Dakota voters literally got sick of seeing Barnett and Kirby and went with the other choice, Rounds.

No one saw it coming. Ask people up there about it, and they’ll use terms like “shocked.”

Back in 2010 Iowa, conventional wisdom holds that Roberts doesn’t have the juice to win the primary.

But a restless electorate may want a fresh break with the politics of the last decade.

Roberts, like Rounds, has campaigned under the radar. He doesn’t make enemies. His conservative credentials are solid. Both men served five terms in their state’s legislatures and knew the issues of the day. They were experienced, yet new in a larger scene.

Yes, Roberts’ odds on June 8 are long.

But before you dismiss him, remember South Dakota and a primary election boil that has strikingly similar ingredients. CV

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