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Inspection season in Iowa

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Michael Gerson
April 19, 2011
— This state, about 10 months from its caucuses, is a flat, fertile, friendly political vacuum.

The Republican candidates who finished first and second the last time around—Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney—are notably absent. Huckabee diehards are organizing in anticipation of another run. But Huckabee tells Iowa supporters that he is genuinely conflicted about mounting a campaign. Romney diehards, in contrast, are as rare as a Starbucks in Ottumwa. Romney was burned so badly during the 2008 caucuses—spending massive, embarrassing amounts per vote—that he is shy about raising any current expectations.


The result is an atmosphere in which at least 10 candidates alternately appear for inspection by practiced eyes, like livestock at the State Fair. Since the early 1990s, the main Republican audience has been religious and conservative, explaining Huckabee’s durable appeal. And religious conservatives have been recently riled by a bitter local debate on gay marriage. In addition, Iowa has a vocal, fractious, contrarian tea party movement of indeterminate size. But few expect that it will coalesce early around a single candidate.


In Huckabee’s absence, two prospects are beginning to peel off his support. Harder-edge religious conservatives are flirting with Michele Bachmann, who is boxing out other candidates of the right. Religious conservatives of gentler disposition—and more concerned with electability—are attracted to Tim Pawlenty, who is visiting often, working hard, hiring staff and making a traditional run. But he has yet to ignite passionate commitment.


“He is on everyone’s list,” says one Republican activist, “but he is everyone’s number two.”


A second tier of Republicans senses weakness in the early leaders. Newt Gingrich is recognized as the idea leader of the party but carries personal and political baggage. Herman Cain has some tea party curb appeal. Haley Barbour glides from place to place on a thick layer of Southern charm. Particularly if Bachmann doesn’t run, Rick Santorum is considered a serious sleeper. Sarah Palin is invisible in the state and largely unmentioned.


Iowa activists speak of another possible route to victory. In addition to the traditional base of caucus participants—120,000 during the last cycle—there are about 100,000 more Iowans who vote in Republican primaries. Party officials describe these as Chamber of Commerce conservatives—bankers, insurance executives and the like. They might be attracted to a strong leader, even one with questionable social conservative credentials. Some religious conservatives could surprisingly fall into this category. “This process isn’t a biblical pop quiz,” one told me.


So Iowa Republicans speak longingly of Chris Christie, who always seems ready for a productive fight. Mitch Daniels might have an opening if he dismounts from the political fence, though social conservatives are still smarting from his proposed “truce” in the culture wars. And then there is Donald Trump, who is causing a buzz across the state. Trump is calling Iowa religious activists, volunteering an explanation of his colorful personal life. After the finale of his television show May 22, he is scheduled to address the Iowa Republican Party’s spring fundraiser, which already will be larger than any that proceeded it. Some speculate that Trump might announce for president at the June 10 event. GQ and “Inside Edition” have requested press credentials.


There is a fine line, however, between a spectacle and a circus. And it seems only a matter of time before the Trump candidacy collapses under the weight of its absurdity.


It may be possible for a late-blooming candidate to take Iowa by storm. But the organizational challenge of getting tens of thousands of voters to spend 60 to 90 minutes at a caucus on a cold night remains even for celebrity candidates. And the precedents are sobering. Last time around, Fred Thompson arrived with a flourish—then appeared at the Iowa State Fair in Gucci loafers, riding a golf cart. Iowa populism was duly offended and Thompson’s bubble burst within 48 hours.


The Iowa caucuses are a test, not just of ideology but of manner. Activists still talk of George W. Bush’s approachability and of Rudy Giuliani’s black limo and sharp-elbowed staff. Iowa niceness can become a harsh judgment on those who lack it.


This state’s political influence—the slingshot momentum of perhaps 40,000 voters—seems disproportionate. But the standards they generally apply—of authenticity, organization and accessibility, as well as ideology—are high. A great power is placed in good hands.


Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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