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2012 Iowa Race Is a Crapshoot

2012 Iowa Race Is a Crapshoot

By Erin McPike - March 30, 2011

DES MOINES, Iowa -- If the New Hampshire narrative is cut-and-dried -- it's Mitt Romney's to lose next year, and he'd better win it -- Iowa will make your head spin.

The two states that will be first to host the GOP presidential nominating contests next year have never agreed on the same Republican. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, tried desperately in the 2008 cycle to be the pioneer who pulled it off, but he came up short in both states. This go-round, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is following a similar model.

In the Granite State, Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman and Haley Barbour will attempt to make themselves the most viable alternatives to Romney, as will any other fiscally focused candidates who surface (one may be Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels). New Hampshire is as close to a must-win for Romney as one state's primary can be. He ran last time, he has plenty of money, he was governor of a neighboring state, and he has a massive lead in the early polling.

In the Hawkeye State, there are lots of questions. Will Pawlenty fit all of the state's coalitions like a glove -- or is he trying too hard to appease too many different people? Where will Christian conservatives come down on economic issues and the elusive concept of electability -- and will evangelicals coalesce around a single candidate as they did in 2008? What about tea partiers?

For all of these reasons, neutral Republican observers in the state say Iowa truly is wide open. Or, wait a minute, that it will come down to Pawlenty and Barbour, because the latter is a well-financed and charming candidate who can appeal to many of the state's conservatives giving the Minnesotan a run for his money. Then there are those who say neither of those candidates really is going anywhere -- that they're just there first -- and oh, by the way, that a candidate can win Iowa on a shoestring budget, so money really doesn't matter.

Many of those observers also say Pawlenty's team is breathing a collective sigh of relief because so many political types here do not believe Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels will run, and there was a sense that the fellow Midwestern governor could throw a wrench into Pawlenty's ability to scare up business-minded Iowa caucus-goers, many of whom previously supported Romney.

But what if they are wrong and Daniels does run and picks off many of the business types who are growing weary of the constant flow of social issues candidate forums taking up so much of the media space there this year? And then there's the open question of how much effort Romney will make again in the state, given his expensive, second-place finish behind Mike Huckabee in 2008. (And what if Huckabee unexpectedly reprises his candidacy?)

Erik Helland, the Republican whip in the lower house of the Iowa legislature, believes GOP voters want a candidate who is plenty conservative -- but who can still defeat President Obama in November of 2012. Tim Pawlenty, who has shown that a conservative can get elected in a blue state, and re-elected after governing as a conservative, might fit that bill.

"It's hard to overstate how important that is," Helland explained. "Pawlenty showed he's a guy who can win." Like Romney in New Hampshire, Pawlenty was governor of a neighboring state, something that Helland says may matter to northern Iowans who live in proximity to Pawlenty's home state.

Pawlenty has a natural persona and belief system that is appealing to most Iowans, said Helland, who has thrown his support behind the Minnesotan. Pawlenty is reaching out to the religious community that favored Huckabee last time while attempting to forge a coalition that blends McCain's supporters with Huckabee's -- and some of Romney's.

Nonetheless, a host of lesser-known candidates further to the right on the political spectrum are also getting some early attention.

One of them is Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, who won this weekend's straw poll at Iowa Rep. Steve King's Conservative Principles Conference -- and who has begun to turn a few heads for his ability to connect from the stump.

"Herman Cain will surprise a lot of people and finish in the top three," said a national Republican operative with hefty experience in presidential campaigns in Iowa. "He will finish ahead of TPaw. You heard it here first." The operative derided what he called Pawlenty's "charisma deficit."

Rep. Michele Bachmann's star has been rising rapidly among the tea party set -- and she's from neighboring Minnesota as well. She's also close to King, and lit up his conference on Saturday. As close as they are, however, King insists adamantly that he's not close to endorsing her yet -- or anyone else.

"I want to promote a legitimate caucus that allows and brings the candidates in to compete for ideas and support," he said in an interview with RealClearPolitics. "I want this arena here in the Iowa caucus to be a real, legitimate presidential candidates' debate, and if I throw support in the race one way or the other, then I throw it out of balance and it diminishes the Iowa caucuses." He said he'll offer his support to someone much later in the process.

Still, Bachmann is starting to nail down political operatives and is currying influence with some of the most conservative members of the Iowa legislature. Leading tea party types in the state are becoming close to her, and they are beginning to network with tea partiers in South Carolina and Nevada, as is King. What's more, Bachmann is starting to intrigue the all-important religious and homeschooling groups in Iowa.

But the caucuses are still 10 months away, and there could be new tea party favorites by then, or even this summer.

Questions abound about the next major straw poll, happening August 13 in Ames. Will certain candidates even play? Will it anoint a tea party favorite? Does Pawlenty have to win? Who will it weed out? Will the Hawkeye State campaign really not begin in earnest until after the straw poll is over?

Doug Gross, a former GOP nominee for governor in Iowa and Romney's 2008 Iowa chairman, doesn't know who he'll support yet and has been meeting methodically with most of the candidates. There are some still on his list with whom to meet -- but no one knows for sure if they're running. In an interview on Friday, he said the simple truth is that the race in Iowa hasn't really started yet.

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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