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Cover Story

Who’s knocking for 2012?

    Presidential politics is to Iowa what gambling is for Vegas

    Illustration by Jim Engler
    Story by Douglas Burns

 

Iowa Republican strategist Tim Albrecht lists Sarah Palin as No. 1 for potential to win the Iowa Caucuses.

There are no breaks in the business. Literally days after President Obama was elected, speculation started about potential challengers for 2012. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal spoke in late November to a conservative crowd of about 800 people at the Sheraton in West Des Moines, feeding, of course, notions about White House-sized ambitions for the young GOP intellectual. And Sarah Palin seems to be everywhere with breathless analysts parsing her latest verbal contortions. Indiana Congressman Mike Pence hit both coasts of Iowa just two weeks ago. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour headlined a major Republican event at Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines this summer. And U.S. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nevada) spoke to an American Future Fund-organized event in Sioux City. We can, of course, forget about that last one.

While the 2012 caucuses are but a glimmer on the horizon for most Iowans, GOP party regulars are well into the process of sorting through potential candidates. Based on recent interviews with Republicans and observations on two decades of covering Hawkeye State politics, fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman Douglas Burns has compiled a ranking of the Top 10 potential candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential caucuses in Iowa. No candidates are formally announced — although Palin may have given a surprise speech between the Cityview deadline for this story and its publication. In December 2006, Burns penned a column for his family’s paper, The Carroll Daily Times Herald, entitled, “Why Barack Obama can win the Iowa Caucuses.” Later in that election cycle, he was among the first journalists in the nation to spot the potential celebrity in an unknown Alaska governor. Two months before John McCain selected Palin as his vice presidential candidate, Burns penned a column under the headline, “Why McCain will select Palin as running mate.”

The following is the list of Top 10 possible contenders as of today for the Republican presidential caucuses in Iowa in 2012.

1. Sarah Palin
We can't gauge Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin with conventional political measurements.

Her appeal with Iowa Republican caucus-goers is precisely what was on display with her resignation just weeks ago — an absolute thumb-nosing of establishment politics, conventional thinking, and on the day before the Fourth of July when cable TV's heavy-hitting lampooners were out of the office on their first or fifth holiday drinks no less. Yes, at first blush, this resignation as governor, with its epic nonsequiturs and mom-unleashed-at-the-school board-meeting quality, hand-delivers ammunition for Palin's fleet of detractors. And as several journalists have noted already, there does seem to be a piece, perhaps a big one, missing from this story. Will she have to make an Appalachian-sized amendment to the story as South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford did just recently? If not, this may work for Palin.

What made Palin popular with Iowans was not her resume of experience in Alaska. Those who cheered her in Sioux City last fall, with the most vocal applause for a Republican I saw in Iowa in the 2008 presidential cycle, knew little about it.

"There is little doubt that she still carries with her enormous admiration from the GOP grassroots," says Iowa Republican strategist Tim Albrecht, Mitt Romney's communications director in Iowa for the 2008 cycle and the founder of TheBeanWalker.com, a conservative Web site The Washington Post ranks as one of the top conservative online venues in the state.

In an as-of-now ranking of the chances of prospective candidates, Albrecht, who is in free agent status for 2012, lists Palin as No. 1 for potential to win the Iowa Caucuses.

"The second she touches down in Iowa, you can bet throngs of supporters will be there to greet her," Albrecht says. "She very much excites the base, and should she decide to run, will generate enormous interest and influence on the race."

The boys with the Blackberrys tell us that Palin should have stayed in Alaska to finish her term (just her first at that). Then perhaps, as she is only 45, take a shot at the U.S. Senate. Build some credentials, burnish that resume. That would put Palin on the same playing field as other politicians, and by that gauge, she loses. Palin is already a political figure too large for the office she held. That resignation announcement speech was clumsy, but what matters is how Iowa Republicans will view her now. Will they hold it against Palin that she quit her job as Alaska governor to become a national advocate, a visible and likely effective one, for their values?

"Sarah is still riding a wave of popularity, although there's literally no specifics from her regarding policy and positions," says Tim Palmer, a Cedar Rapids small businessman who is chairman of the Linn County Republican Party.

It's hard to think of someone as a quitter when you see them more on television and at party dinners and in other venues than you did before. Then there's this to consider: Many in the national media have this mistaken sense that Iowa Republicans are seeking a new identity, that they'll reach out to moderates and carve out more widely palatable positions. Having been to two major GOP events in just the last weeks in Iowa, I get the distinct sense that the party is growing smaller, more insular, more angry — and that it is likely to double-down on a candidate like Palin — damn the torpedoes and the media and conventional wisdom — and Gov. Haley Barbour who tried the other night in Des Moines (to no avail) to get rank-and-file Republicans to accept new demographics and dynamics of life in America.

Palin is exactly what many Republicans want ~ a time machine. We know that machine goes back, but whether there's a switch in it for the future remains to be seen.

Not all Republicans agree with that, of course.

"A poll on my own Web site seems to indicate many don't take her seriously now as a federal candidate," says Palmer, who runs the popular HawkeyeReview.com. In an unscientific poll on that Web site, 36 percent of respondents said Palin's surprise resignation announcement on July 3 effectively ended her political career while another 25 percent wrote her off as 'crazy.'

The resignation definitely hurts, says GOP insider Eric Woolson, who served as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's campaign manager in the Republican's winning 2008 Iowa Caucuses bid. Woolson is not affiliated with any presidential camp for 2012 although Huckabee has endorsed Sioux City businessman Bob Vander Plaats' bid for governor. Woolson is a consultant for Vander Plaats.

Woolson says one problem for Palin may be her apparent unwillingness to take advice.

"I felt the McCain people handled her all wrong," Woolson said.

That said, she may be gun shy about putting her national reputation in the hands of the Iowans she would need to do well at the grassroots level.

"Candidates who compete in Iowa are candidates who are coachable," says Chase Martyn, editor of Iowa Independent.com.

2. Jeb Bush
It’s easy to dismiss the former governor of Florida because of his last name.
But not so fast. Bush isn’t a four-letter word in a political sense with the GOP base in Iowa.

“Jeb Bush would be a terrific candidate,” Albrecht says. “His record in Florida is unmatched by any governor in the country. He made the tough decisions while still remaining wildly popular. Should he decide to run, he would be a very formidable opponent regardless of his last name.”

While Bush may tap into nostalgia (remember we’re talking the base here, western Iowa Republicans) and be able to pull dynastic strings, there are concerns.

Chief among them, Martyn says, is a record that has its less-than- conservative elements.

“Bush expanded the state’s involvement in education in ways that are generally thought of as moderate,” says Martyn, a native of Palm Beach County, Fla.

GOP voters in Iowa may be put off by that, he adds.

“They’re not going to see him as the conservative savior they thought he was,” Martyn said.

The reason I’m leapfrogging Bush to the No. 2 pre-caucus ranking is because I think he not only has governing credentials, and the obvious heft of a family name, but ideas as well. In this month’s issue of Esquire magazine, Bush grants a remarkable interview to Tucker Carlson, albeit a friendly interrogator. In that story Jeb Bush makes the case that the Democrats and Obama won on tactics, that there’s “no seismic shift.”

Bush provides a withering and succinct criticism of Obama on cap and trade and health care. And he doesn’t sound like an apologist for his brother.

Married for more than 30 years to a Latina he met in Mexico City while studying, Jeb Bush is perhaps the Republican best-suited to reach out to Hispanic voters, a demographic the GOP needs a healthy chunk of if the party is to avoid the way of the Whigs and survive into future generations.

Jeb Bush gets points for the best denial of presidential ambition I’ve heard from the potential field.

“Frankly, I don’t wake up each day assuming I’m the solution to life’s problems,” Bush told Esquire.

Family redemption is an awfully big motivation, though. And in Bush, who remarkably is just 56, Republicans may see a political figure with the gravitas to stand up to President Obama. And by time the caucuses roll around in 2012, the desire to defeat Obama is likely to surpass fascination with what are arguably novelty acts like Palin and regionalized characters like Huckabee.

3. Mike Huckabee
The southern-fried Huckabee pulled off a win in Iowa over a much-better funded Mitt Romney in 2008.The question has to be asked: Until another candidate beats him, doesn’t he deserve the No. 1 slot? Fair enough. But this isn’t a college football poll.

“He clearly is a very strong candidate and has a clear message,” says his former campaign manager Woolson.

But Woolson isn’t sure Huckabee, who is enjoying TV and radio work, wants back in the game for 2012.

“That will be the question — whether he’s willing to give up the other things he’s doing right now,” Woolson said.

Palmer thinks Huckabee would clearly benefit from a strong network of Bob Vander Plaats supporters.

Adds Albrecht, “He still has a vibrant, excited community in Iowa that supports him, and they will be ready to work their hearts out for him again.”

4. Mitt Romney
Palmer, who supported Iowa Caucuses “silver medalist” Romney in 2008, says the former Massachusetts governor and successful businessman should be considered the favorite here in 2012.

“I believe this next election will hub around the economy,” Palmer says. “For that reason I feel Mitt is the candidate to beat at this point. The concerns he had about name recognition from the past cycle are now a moot point. If the Dow is below 8,000 and unemployment is above 10 percent in January 2012, then I believe the pocketbook vote will ordain our next candidate.”

The English betting site, Ladbrokes, gives Romney the best odds of any Republican at this point for wining the White House in 2012. He’s at 15 to 1 — which in horse-racing parlance is what one calls a “good price.” Obama stands at just under 2 to 1 on the Ladbrokes site.

We are, of course, just concerned about Iowa here.

5. Tim Pawlenty
Minnesota’s Republican governor could benefit from name recognition due to crossover media in northern Iowa, and he may be able to campaign just far enough under the radar to build grassroots support while other candidates (read Palin) suffer public implosions, Martyn says.

“He’s never going to be the star of the Republican Party,” says Martyn.

Nevertheless, Republican insiders are high on the governor — who made McCain’s vice presidential shortlist.

“The darkhorse is Pawlenty,” Palmer says. “He’s a neighboring governor who just pulled off what many call a ‘budget miracle’ in his home state and is leaving on a high note. I believe Tim has room to gain here in Iowa, although he can’t do this from afar and will need to travel the state and play ‘retail politics’ as Iowan’s expect and demand face to face exposure with those whom they might get an opportunity to vote for.”

6. Newt Gingrich
The former U.S. House speaker from Georgia is an ideas guy at a time when the party is in desperate need of ideas.

“We’re clearly going to have to have ideas,” Woolson says. “Four years ago it would not have worked for Gingrich.”

But isn’t there a rule: one revolution per lifetime? Gingrich led the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress. By 2012 that will be almost two decades old — and the demographics of the nation have changed dramatically.

“Newt is still popular and certainly smart,” Palmer says. “I see him fading though and if he doesn’t increase his Iowa profile, he stands to fall off the list.”

7. Mike Pence
As GOP House Conference chairman, Pence is the third-ranking Republican in the U.S. House and recently has been outspoken on Iran and the climate change bill.

A former talk-radio show host in Indiana, Pence has been mentioned by Iowa GOP insiders as a potentially formidable candidate.

“Throughout his career in public service, Congressman Pence has been a forceful advocate for our party’s principles of limited government, personal responsibility, and political, economic and religious freedom,” said Iowa Republican Party chairman Matt Strawn, adding that he anticipates this message resonating with many Iowans and Republicans.

Pence fueled speculation about a possible 2012 run by appearing in both eastern and western Iowa in late July. He joined U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Kiron) for an event in northwest Iowa and keynoted a multi-party picnic in Mount Vernon.

In the Mount Vernon speech, Pence said that while only 22 percent of Americans described themselves as liberal, voters sent “the most liberal one-party government in the history of the country” to Washington, D.C., Iowa Independent’s Lynda Waddington reported.

“So, what happened?” Pence asked. “Some blame the war in Iraq. Others blame scandals in Washington, D.C. But I say the real scandal in Washington, D.C. was run-away federal spending under Republican control. The truth is that Republicans didn’t just lose a few elections, we lost our way. We walked away from our principles … and the American people walked away from us.”

After the event Waddington told me that Pence’s connection with the audience, his speaking style in fact, reminded her of a 1999 George W. Bush.

“Could Pence be a presidential contender? Yes,” Waddington told me.

Waddington said the reaction to Pence was decidedly mixed. Some Republicans aren’t excited about naval-gazing and self-reflection. They think there’s an open field to run up yards on the Democrats with the increased federal spending and mandates President Obama is pushing.

8. Bobby Jindal
"I love Bobby Jindal," Jeb Bush said in the Esquire interview. "He's the real deal."

Louisiana's 38-year-old Republican governor, in short-list territory with many as a potential presidential candidate for 2012, made what could be considered an initial foray into Iowa with a keynote speech earlier this year in West Des Moines on cultural values to one of the Hawkeye State's major Christian conservative organizations - the Iowa Family Policy Center. Jindal, a Rhodes Scholar whose meteoric rise through Louisiana politics has national party leaders eyeing him as Oval Office material, told me then there are more important matters to think about than speculation about his prospects as a leader of a resurrected Republican Party. He has a big job as governor of Louisiana, Jindal said politely, in a brief exchange.

That considered, State Rep. Linda Upmeyer (R-Garner) sees Jindal as being able to effectively bridge social conservatives and the more economically main street Republicans.??

Upmeyer, who heard Jindal speak in West Des Moines, said at the time she thinks Jindal would do well in Iowa in 2012, should he run, noting that he's clearly articulate and passionate.

A graduate of Brown University who later went to Oxford, England, on a Rhodes Scholarship, Jindal at age 24 was appointed as Louisiana's secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals. In 2004, Jindal, a second-generation Indian American, who's Catholic, was elected to Congress, and then became governor in 2007. Additionally, Upmeyer, who considers herself a social conservative, said Jindal passed something of a first-impression gut or smell test with conservatives, that they see him as one of them. "I think he did," she said.

Jindal's detractors point to his age and what was by all objective accounts was a poor performance earlier this year in the Republican response to Obama's State of the Union speech. To be fair, recall that Bill Clinton overcame a lackluster convention speech earlier in his career. The practical case against Jindal is that he's seeking re-election as governor in 2011 and can't be chasing lunched-down pork tenderloins in Iowa with late-night gumbo in Baton Rouge.

9. Eric Cantor
The U.S. House Republican whip from Richmond, Calif., was mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate for John McCain in 2008. Some Virginians even had McCain-Cantor campaign materials printed.

Then there's this: The Washington Post recently reported that Cantor spent about $8,000 on speech coaches.

That said, he told the same newspaper that he was not running for president.

As a member of the House Ways & Means Committee, Cantor has been in the middle of key debates and is seen by GOP insiders as a heavyweight on economic issues - a serious man with policy credentials.

But in the last century and a half, Members of the U.S. House have not had much success in presidential bids.

The last president to move from the People's chamber to the Oval Office was James Garfield in 1880.

But it's good they try. Arguably the wittiest politician of the 20th century, U.S. Rep. Morris Udall, an Arizona Democrat, made a spirited and very legitimate presidential bid in 1972 that left generations of speechwriters with a gem, his book, "Too Funny To Be President."

10. Chuck Grassley
Charles Grassley for president?

In talking on the phone with Iowa State University professor and WOI Radio 'Dr. Politics' host Steffen Schmidt, I couldn't see if he was maintaining a straight face when he put forward this idea: U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) as a presidential candidate.

Schmidt, who has been in Ames for four decades as a political science professor, assured me he was serious, that his face was in fact straight, that he was basing his comments on conversations with people inside the Republican Party.

"It's not a throwaway, B.S., or a joke or anything," Schmidt said.

The GOP, Schmidt said, is in need of an 'adult' who can speak for the party without embarrassing it —as former potential presidential candidates Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina and U.S. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) have done in recent weeks. (I had to scrub Sanford and Ensign from this story — and I interviewed Ensign just weeks ago in Sioux City.)

Grassley fits that political adult bill, plus he has a workmanlike reputation on both sides of the aisle, says Schmidt.

And while party leaders may be concerned about Grassley's charisma factor on a national stage and age (he is 75 and first served in the Iowa House when Dwight Eisenhower was president), he'll be a steady, Midwestern voice.?

"They know he's never flown to Argentina," Schmidt said in a reference to the embarrassing saga involving Sanford and his Argentine lover.

Of course, being relegated to defining a candidate or a party by what it is not, rather than what it is, raises troubling questions. CV

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