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Courting a Border Governor (Nebraska's, That Is)

Courting a Border Governor (Nebraska's, That Is)

By Erin McPike - May 16, 2011

Now that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has taken himself out of the 2012 Republican presidential contest, expect those who do run to give Iowa more intense attention. Huckabee won the Hawkeye State's caucuses last time, and his decision makes the state all the more competitive this time, which makes one endorsement all the more important.

It's not just Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad whom GOP hopefuls have to court in the first voting state of 2012 -- there's also Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, whose state borders Iowa to the west.

Thanks to an Omaha media market that spills into western Iowa, Heineman is well-known there, an area heavy with activists from the religious right who go to the Republican caucuses in droves.

In an interview with RealClearPolitics last week, Heineman said it's possible that he could wind up endorsing one of the governors or former governors in the race and campaign hard for his choice in Iowa.

In the 2008 election he supported former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Heineman is open to supporting him again but says he has "a few more friends in the race this time." He had been considering Haley Barbour before the Mississippi governor chose not to run, and named Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty as good friends of his.

Heineman said he's not as familiar with former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, but he wants to get to know him, too. And it's likely he'll have an opportunity in July, when the National Governors Association gathers in Salt Lake City. Huntsman worked two years ago to bring this summer's NGA meeting in his home state, and it just so happens that Heineman will take on the chairmanship of the organization at that gathering, so it's likely Huntsman will have a golden opportunity to make his pitch there.

Not surprisingly, Heineman said that the three top issues in the race will be the economy, jobs and health care, and he'll be in search of a candidate that can best address those three things.

His support might mean more than meets the eye. Under Heineman, Nebraska's unemployment rate of 4.5 percent is well below the national average, and he's eager to showcase the reforms he's overseen in his state.

Beyond that, Heineman has some political skills that could prove helpful to a candidate in Iowa. He was appointed governor in 2005 when President Bush tapped Mike Johanns to be secretary of agriculture; the following year, Heineman came out on top in a bitter primary he was expected to lose. Former Rep. Tom Osborne, who was once the coach of the University of Nebraska football team (a role known around the state as something of a "Nebraska Jesus"), was expected to dethrone Heineman in the intra-party fight. But Heineman beat him by several points and went on to garner nearly three-quarters of the statewide vote in 2006, even though that election cycle was particularly bad for Republicans.

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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