Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty Names Iowa Advisors

May 20, 2011

URBANDALE – Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced today four senior Iowa political operatives have joined his Presidential exploratory team.

Pawlenty said that former U.S. Ambassador to Latvia Chuck Larson, Jr., former Republican National Committee Midwest regional political director Karen Slifka, former Iowans for Tax Relief president Ed Failor Jr., and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 2008 Iowa campaign manager Eric Woolson will serve as senior consultants.

“Chuck, Karen, Ed and Eric are recognized as being among the best of the best in Iowa. They’re widely respected in Iowa and nationally because they understand the caucus process inside out,” Pawlenty said. “They’ve worked with party activists at the grassroots level in every county of the state, and they’ve had a hand in winning campaigns at every level. Their experience and expertise will help us organize conservative.”

Failor, of Muscatine, recently resigned as president of Iowans for Tax Relief. He served more than two years in that position, culminating 16 years with the organization. The group has been acknowledged as one of the most-influential public policy, lobbying and political action organizations in the state. Failor played a major role in the current 60-member GOP majority in the Iowa House, recruiting conservative candidates and helping guide planning and strategy. He led the Republican Party of Iowa’s 2004 Victory Campaign, helping President George W. Bush become the first Republican in 20 years to carry the state. Failor served on the National Taxpayers Union board for 12 years and was the group’s vice chairman. He has been president of Targeted Consulting since 2005.

Larson, a partner with Larson Shannahan Slifka Group, a public policy firm in West Des Moines, represented Cedar Rapids in the Iowa Legislature from 1993 to 2007. He was chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa from 2001 to 2005 and a senior advisor during McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. As a major in the U.S. Army Reserves, Larson served in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and was awarded the Bronze Star for meritorious service in combat and the Combat Action Badge. As a result of that experience, he wrote Heroes Among Us, which profiles 29 heroes from the War on Terrorism and was released by Penguin Publishing Group. Larson, a former Jones County assistant attorney, earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Iowa.

Slifka is the managing partner of the Larson Shannahan Slifka Group. In her role as RNC Midwest Regional Political Director, she advised state parties and candidates for federal office in eight states. She served in a similar capacity for President Bush’s re-election campaign and directed the grassroots campaign in the key battleground states of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Her grassroots and field experience in Iowa includes serving as development director for Iowans for Tax Relief and state director for the John Kasich Presidential Exploratory Committee. She began her career with Congressman Jim Nussle as a field representative in 1992 and a finance director in 1994.

Woolson, who was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 2008 Iowa campaign manager, will be Pawlenty’s state spokesman. Before working for Huckabee, Woolson was a communications director for Gov. Terry Branstad from 1996-99 and Iowa spokesman for George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign. He was the communications director for the 2002 Doug Gross for Governor Campaign and was an adviser to the Miller-Meeks for Congress campaign in 2008 and 2010. Woolson managed the 2010 Bob Vander Plaats for Governor campaign and was a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley’s 2010 re-election campaign. A journalist during the first 20 years of his career, Woolson has owned a West Des Moines public and government relations firm, The Concept Works, since 2002.

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Des Moines Register: Who’s Likely in for the Straw Poll

May 15, 2011


Bachmann, a U.S. representative from Minnesota, has set an early June deadline for deciding whether she’ll formally enter the presidential race. Asked about her straw poll strategy, Bachmann said in a telephone interview with The Des Moines Register: “What we plan to do is have a strong presence in Iowa. … We need to let people in Iowa who aren’t familiar with my background know I am one with them.”

Bachmann is anti-establishment with tea party street cred, but so are Ron Paul and Herman Cain. She’s a strong social conservative who can appeal to the home-school network, but Rick Santorum and others will be targeting that group, too. She hammers away at spending and the debt, but every Republican in Iowa will bang that gavel.

Asked how she can pull ahead at the straw poll, Bachmann said she thinks her deep roots in Iowa as well as her history of fighting for one-man-one-woman marriage, taking unwed mothers under her wing to prevent abortions, and taking on both Republicans and Democrats on spending issues will seal her popularity with Iowans.

Campaign manager Andy Parrish predicted that if Bachmann enters the race, she would have little trouble engaging the grass roots in rapid-fire fashion to come to Ames for her. Historically, he said, “she fills the room and then some.”


Retired business executive Herman Cain of Georgia has received gushing reaction to his speeches in Iowa and to his performance in the nationally televised Republican debate in South Carolina May 5. His staff didn’t respond to questions about his straw poll strategy.

Cain, whose executive experience includes positions with Godfather’s Pizza, Pillsbury and Burger King, is expected to announce his decision regarding a presidential campaign Saturday in Atlanta. The day before, he’s scheduled to headline a Pottawattamie County fundraiser.


Gingrich, a historian, author and former speaker of the U.S. House, officially announced his candidacy on Wednesday, the first major Republican candidate to do so. Gingrich, known as a policy wonk who’s a font of ideas, recently converted to Catholicism. He has made 10 trips to Iowa in the past year, and has been wooing Iowa’s evangelical Christians.

Iowans will see Gingrich in Ames Aug. 13, said Craig Schoenfeld, Gingrich’s Iowa campaign director.

The straw poll “can be somewhat of a barometer of what the caucus is going to look like,” Schoenfeld said. “There’s different strategies and different tactics, but there’s a role for it (the straw poll), and it’s a good time for Republicans in Iowa not only to hear the different candidates, but to take the national spotlight.”


Pawlenty, whose childhood was shaped by life in a blue-collar Minnesota meatpacking town and the death of his mother at 16, is campaigning extensively here. His audiences have called him well-spoken and embraced his generalist message. Since the former two-term Minnesota governor announced a presidential exploratory committee on March 21 (the first major Republican to do so), Pawlenty has hired an all-star lineup of Iowa operatives.

Eric Woolson, a longtime Iowa strategist who is guiding Pawlenty’s campaign here, said: “Any presidential candidate who plans to compete in the Iowa caucuses must be able to earn real support of voters at the Republican Party of Iowa straw poll in Ames because that’s how this process works. Governor Pawlenty respects and values that process, and that’s why he’s been traveling our state to introduce himself to Iowans. He’ll continue to work hard over the next three months to let Iowans know about his record and what he stands for, and he’s looking forward to the straw poll.”


Paul, a 12-term Texas U.S. representative who received a skeptical brush-off from the Iowa Republican establishment when he ran four years ago, said people are much more receptive to his libertarian message today.

Paul told the Register his goal is to finish first in the straw poll, but the top four “would be great.”

“The 13th is a lucky day for me,” he said. “I think the enthusiasm and the support in the organization is going to be so much stronger (than four years ago). But not only that, it’s the conditions of the country are so much different when it comes to the economy, the foreign policy, the debt problem and the frustration and the anger with the people.”

David Fischer, vice chairman of his Iowa team, said, “Clearly, we don’t have the money of a Mitt Romney. But we do have thousands of passionate supporters, and we are assembling a team of experienced and campaign-tested professionals that will help Ron Paul maximize his potential and be competitive in Iowa, both in Ames and on caucus night.”


The two-term former senator from Pennsylvania has not yet moved past the exploratory committee stage, but if he runs, he will make Iowa – the straw poll and caucuses – his focus, said John Brabender, senior adviser to the Santorum campaign.

“Rick Santorum has spent more time in Iowa than any other candidate,” Brabender said. “That is our strategy. Clearly the families in Iowa expect candidates to be there. They expect to kick the tires.”

Santorum talks about the economy, debt and other issues, but he highlights his record against abortion.

“Anybody that would suggest that we should call a truce on the moral issues doesn’t understand what America’s all about,” Santorum said at the South Carolina debate, referring to a remark last year by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. “We are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights. Rights come from God and the first of them is life.”

Looking for signs: Are they running?
Several big name Republicans haven’t committed to running, let alone discussing straw poll plans. Backers are trying to entice them to join the race and are organizing support.

A team of prominent Iowa Republicans will fly out to meet with the first-term governor May 31 in an attempt to persuade him to run. They have been impressed with his work to cut spending and his no-holds-barred style. But Christie has repeatedly said he’s not interested in running for president.


Top Republicans, including Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, have heaped praise on Daniels, the governor of Indiana, and said they hope he runs for president. Daniels, who has said he thinks he’d have a good chance of beating President Obama, is considering a decision. He’s a former pharmaceutical executive known for eliminating collective bargaining for state employees and successfully pushing education reform. His plan will allow Indiana students within a certain income range to use school vouchers to attend private schools of their parents’ choice. He alarmed some social conservatives last year by calling for a truce on social issues, a comment he has said was partly aimed at liberals.


It’s unclear whether Palin, a former governor of Alaska, has any intentions of running. An email to a spokesman for SarahPAC went unanswered.

Supporters are keeping their hopes up. North Carolina home-schooling mom Karen Allen, founder of Organize4Palin, told the Register: “If we consider Governor Palin’s criteria for running for president, which was if she didn’t see anyone else who could bring to the table what she could and be willing to make those hard decisions we as a country must come to terms with, then it appears to us that a 2012 Palin campaign is inevitable.”

Organize4Palin is not connected to Palin or her political action committee. Volunteer regional directors and county teams are “intensively” working to organize in Iowa, said Organize4Palin’s Iowa leader, Peter Singleton, who has been scouting for Palin fans here since November. “I consider the other guys pretty formidable. They have lots of money and lots of skilled operatives and the like, but I think they’re underestimating her grass-roots base here in Iowa.” Palin was last in Iowa on Dec. 2, as part of a 16-city book tour that ended in South Carolina, another early-decision state.


Name ID is half the battle in political elections, and Iowa Republicans say no one in their lineup can top Trump, a New York City real estate mogul and reality TV star. Trump has made no official steps toward a presidential bid, restricted by his television show “Celebrity Apprentice.” But an announcement is expected at the end of May, and he will likely set an attendance record at the Iowa Republican Party fundraiser June 10.

His adviser, Michael Cohen, declined to answer questions last week about Trump’s straw poll strategy, but Trump told the Register in mid-April: “I will make Iowa a major focus of my campaign.” Iowa insiders said he could sweep up straw poll support from Iowans who simply like his conservative message or are infatuated with his celebrity status.

Notables who might skip the event
Mitt Romney already has a strong Iowa network. Neither he nor Jon Huntsman appeals strongly to social conservatives. They might skirt the straw poll and invest more efforts in other early decision states.


After resigning his post as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China earlier this month, Huntsman speedily embarked on a testing-the-waters effort, raising money, hiring political staff and scheduling speeches in South Carolina, Florida and New Hampshire. A spokesman for the former Utah governor has said Huntsman will decide whether to run for president by early summer, but wouldn’t say whether he intends to visit Iowa. Iowa Republicans said if he rides the economy wave and promotes his trade and managerial expertise, he could attract independent voters and give Obama a run for his money.

Aides for Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts and the presumed national front-runner, wouldn’t reveal to the Register whether he’ll a) make a hard push for the straw poll, b) campaign little here but show up to give a speech in Ames, or c) skip the event altogether.

Romney went all out in 2007: He bought the best location for his tent, catered a barbecue lunch and chartered a fleet of buses to bring in supporters. That paid off in the short-term – he won the straw poll – but not in the long run.

He’s expected to campaign some in Iowa (he makes his first 2011 visit on May 27), but to focus much less attention than last time.

Iowa Republicans noted that when Romney announced his exploratory committee on April 11, he did so via video from New Hampshire.

Longer shots
Some lesser-known potential candidates have made several Iowa visits, but their straw poll intentions are not yet clear.


Karger, an longtime Republican activist from California who is openly gay, has campaigned in Iowa for a more moderate Republican Party. He has focused on college campuses, where he tosses “Fred Frisbees” to students. He told the Register he’s still weighing whether to participate in the straw poll. “A lot will depend on fundraising,” he said.


Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico, is an outdoor adventurer who has climbed Mount Everest and ridden RAGBRAI, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Johnson, who announced his candidacy on April 21 in New Hampshire, favors pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, legalizing marijuana, abortion rights and gay marriage rights. Emails to his staff asking about his straw poll intentions went unanswered.


Moore, who was ousted from Alabama’s supreme court in 2003 for ignoring a federal judge’s order to take down a Ten Commandments monument from the state courthouse, announced on April 18 that he intended to form a presidential exploratory committee. Family Leader lobbyist Danny Carroll is Moore’s lead Iowa contact. Asked about a straw poll strategy, Carroll said: “The straw poll is significant, of course. It will be difficult for any candidate to do well in February if they do poorly in August.”

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Des Moines Register: Open GOP Field Raises Profile of Straw Poll

May 15, 2011

With the Iowa straw poll a mere 90 days away, the absence of an obvious leader in the GOP race for the presidency, or even an obvious lineup, has left Republicans in a state of unease – but the uncertainty has also heightened anticipation, insiders say.

“It’s wide open, and I think it’s extremely unpredictable,” said Mary Cownie, a former spokeswoman for the Iowa Republican Party.

Politics insiders in Iowa say the dynamics of the race will make this year’s nonbinding event in Ames different from past years: More than anything, it could be a way to get a second-tier ticket punched, or serve as a path to legitimacy for someone who’s betting it all on Iowa.

Yet there’s still time on the clock – just barely – for a wild card of national stature to emerge on the straw poll stage, strategists said. After all, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, scion of a political dynasty, didn’t make his first Iowa visit until June 12, 1999, and still won the straw poll.

Scheduled this year for Aug. 13, the straw poll is a combination state GOP fundraising event, closely watched measuring stick of early campaign strength, and a dress rehearsal for the first-in-the-nation caucuses here in February.

Republicans Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum are definitely in for the straw poll, Des Moines Register interviews with campaign aides and Iowa insiders show.

Poll-leading power candidate Mitt Romney will make his first Iowa visit of the year on May 27, but insiders don’t expect a heavy presence here from him – or from Jon Huntsman or Sarah Palin before the straw poll.

An Aug. 11 Fox News/Iowa Republican Party debate, scheduled just two days earlier, will make it harder for contenders to debate and then skip town, campaign aides said.

Mike Huckabee took one unknown variable out of the political calculus Saturday night by announcing he would not seek the presidency.

The former Arkansas governor came in a surprising second in the 2007 straw poll and won the 2008 Iowa caucuses. If he had joined the race and campaigned actively for the straw poll, he would have been expected to win, relegating the rest of the field to competing for second.

Insiders see variety of scenarios unfolding
With the field far from settled, top Iowa operatives outlined a number of possible scenarios for potential straw poll contestants:

– Romney supporters said they don’t think he needs to go through the tuneup of the straw poll and may keep a light calendar in Iowa through the caucuses, scheduled for Feb. 6. He went all-out to compete in the straw poll last cycle and won. So he doesn’t have to prove he can win in Ames, the theory goes.

But Romney’s lead evaporated through the fall, and a united evangelical turnout dropped him to second place in the caucuses.

This year, Romney can save his cash with, for the most part, little pressure, insiders said.

– Pawlenty appears poised for a full-out run at a high straw poll finish. He’s working from the traditional playbook that calls for a beefy Iowa team, the choicest strategists, a big cash outlay and a top finish in Ames to be viable. It’s Iowa or bust, politics watchers said.

“He’s put all his chips on the table early, so he needs to win the straw poll big or go home,” said Christopher Rants of Sioux City, a political consultant and former Republican leader in the Iowa House.

– Bachmann is someone who could upset him, several Republican insiders said.

“I think someone like Bachmann, who can whip people into a frenzy, can exert maximum pressure late, and turn this into a movement can pull off a stunner,” said Robert Haus, who managed Phil Gramm’s improbable tie with Bob Dole in the 1996 straw poll, and Steve Forbes’ second place to Bush in the 2000 straw poll and caucuses.

– Gingrich last week became the first big-name Republican to officially announce he is running for president, and he has scheduled a 17-event swing in Iowa this week. Craig Schoenfeld, Gingrich’s Iowa campaign director, confirmed Thursday that Gingrich will participate in the straw poll.

– Some Republicans have written off Palin, despite increasing efforts by Organize4Palin in Iowa, led by activists Peter Singleton of California and Michelle McCormick of Texas.

“She’s not running,” Rants said flatly.

– Paul, who made his presidential bid official Friday, is a wild card who might be someone to watch in August, strategists said. The level of organization amid libertarian-leaning Iowans can be hard for the Republican establishment to detect.

– Or Donald Trump might have enough celebrity after his big speech to an expected crowd of about 2,600 in Des Moines on June 10 to score a victory in the straw poll, insiders said.

‘A relentless project’ in campaign organization
To win the straw poll, a candidate will need only about 5,000 to 6,000 votes – but that’s no small feat, strategists said. Success is not about name recognition, ballot appeal or fiery speeches. It takes money to pay for block-and-tackle organization building to get people to Ames.

“It’s not an easy task. It’s a relentless project,” said Steve Scheffler, whose campaign experience dates to 1987, when he was a staffer for religious conservative Pat Robertson’s presidential efforts here.

The straw poll may weed out lesser-known contenders, perhaps Gary Johnson, Fred Karger and Roy Moore, who don’t have a large following, but could linger on the Iowa scene as long as they’ve got a tank of gas.

A lower-than-expected showing in the straw poll can spell doom for a campaign. Dole, Sam Brownback, Pat Buchanan, Dan Quayle, Lamar Alexander and Tommy Thompson are among its victims.

But skipping the straw poll could hold some peril for someone considered at the top of the heap now, said Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political science professor and co-author of the book “The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event, Third Edition.”

“You don’t want some lesser-known person to be able to use the straw poll to become a serious contender,” Goldford said. “If somebody like Huntsman or Johnson or Trump or Bachmann really were going to do something, and if they all of a sudden were to score big in the straw poll, relative to everybody else, that’s a real feather in their cap. The straw poll is definitely a momentum force.”

If better-knowns skip the straw poll, the contest would become an exercise in winnowing the social conservative candidates who stress their opposition to gay marriage and abortion.

Showing affects future coverage, fundraising
Some Republicans nationally question whether Iowa has become so dominated by social conservatives that the straw poll and caucuses are a poor test for candidates who need broad national appeal in the general election. Successful GOP presidential candidates usually need to attract fiscal conservatives, moderate Republicans and blue-dog Democrats in addition to social conservatives.

Cownie argued that Iowa is ultimately a good representation of all types of conservatives, and a good gauge of candidates for the rest of the country. The top concerns for the majority of Iowa Republicans are business, jobs and the economy, she said, but the more vocal and active social conservatives sometimes overshadow those who stay silent or have become disengaged when fiscal issues aren’t at the forefront, she said.

The straw poll continues to carry national weight, said George Edwards, a political science professor at Texas A&M University. It attracts national news coverage, affects how the media perceives the presidential race, and can either help or hurt a candidate’s fundraising efforts.

Iowans will likely see an acceleration of campaigning for the straw poll after Memorial Day, several campaign aides said. If hopefuls aren’t ramping up efforts significantly in early June, it’s evidence they don’t intend to leverage what the straw poll can do for them.

Veteran Iowa strategist Eric Woolson, allied with Huckabee last cycle, said the lack of a runaway favorite can only add excitement to the straw poll.

“It’s like a close football game or a close baseball game,” he said. “I not only want to watch this to see how it turns out, but I want to get in there and participate and cheer for my team.”

Des Moines Register: Huckabee Won’t Run Again for President

May 14, 2011

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who came from behind to win the 2008 Iowa Republican presidential caucuses, announced Saturday night that he won’t attempt to repeat the feat.

“All the factors say, ‘Go,’ but my heart says, ‘No,’” he said on his Fox News show.

The good-humored former Baptist minister worked tirelessly in Iowa during the last campaign cycle, overtaking better-known and better-financed candidates to place first in the caucuses. Huckabee was supported by 34percent of caucus participants, compared to 25percent for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who came in second.

Huckabee went on to win seven other states, but he eventually conceded that he could not beat Arizona Sen. John McCain for the nomination. After the campaign, Huckabee took the Fox News job and continued writing books. Though he occasionally traveled back to Iowa, many Republicans here didn’t see him putting in the kind of effort they would expect if he were running again.

Saturday night, Huckabee said he was amused by pundits who’d claimed for weeks that they knew what he would do, even though he hadn’t decided. He said many people from around the country had urged him to run, his family supported the idea, and he could have garnered enough money to mount a vigorous campaign. But after praying about the issue, he said, he realized he should stay out of the race.

“So many good and dear people have put forth extraordinary effort without any assurance that I would even mount a campaign. And it pains me, seriously pains me, to let them down,” he said. “But I also know my decision is going to delight just as many, who aren’t that fond of me.”

The former Arkansas governor still had strong support in Iowa. A poll of Iowa Republicans done last month by Public Policy Polling showed Huckabee led the potential field, with support from 27 percent of respondents. Romney was second in the poll, with 16 percent. Businessman Donald Trump was third, with 14 percent.

Eric Woolson of West Des Moines, who was Huckabee’s Iowa campaign manager in 2008, said he believes his old boss truly was torn about the decision.

Woolson, who now is a communications consultant to former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said Pawlenty and the other 2012 candidates will need to work hard to try to win over Huckabee’s supporters. Woolson noted that many Huckabee backers had never participated in the Iowa caucuses before 2008.

“It’s going to take them some time to say, ‘Do I want to be involved in 2012 at all?’” he said.

Woolson said it’s hard to predict which candidate stands the best chance of benefiting from Huckabee’s decision.

“I think it’s really wide open at this point, because different people supported the governor for different reasons.” He said many observers falsely described Huckabee’s supporters as a uniform crowd of evangelical Christian home-schooling families. In fact, he said, many were fiscal conservatives attracted by the former governor’s common-sense ideas about limiting government.
Craig Schoenfeld, executive director of the Iowa campaign for Newt Gingrich, agreed that no candidate will be able to take Huckabee’s former supporters for granted. “We’re not afraid of the hard work, and we’re anxious to get to it,” he said.

Schoenfeld said he expects the Republican field to firm up in the next few weeks. Huckabee’s announcement “makes things a lot clearer,” he said.

Gingrich, who is a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, last week announced that he is running. So did Texas Congressman Ron Paul. Others, including Pawlenty and Romney, are expected to announce candidacies soon.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who also is considered a likely candidate, expressed optimism that his socially conservative message would resonate with Huckabee fans.

“Those of us who believe in the virtues and values of life and family can never have enough allies, and I am grateful to Governor Huckabee for helping to keep those issues front and center,” Santorum said in a prepared statement.

The field of candidates is taking longer than usual to form. In Iowa, part of the delay might have been due to the uncertainty over whether Huckabee would run.

Iowa Republican Chairman Matt Strawn warned on a C-SPAN show last month that the former Arkansas governor needed to decide soon. Strawn noted that many other campaigns were starting to sign up county leaders and precinct chairs. Such organizers are especially crucial in Iowa, where it takes extensive effort to make sure a candidate’s supporters turn out for caucuses. Strawn suggested that although Huckabee would not need to introduce himself to Iowans the way he did four years ago, he would have a tough time winning if many of his previous activists committed to someone else before he decided to run.

Governing Magazine: Can Texas Find a Future for a Third of its Workforce?

May 5, 2011

By 2016, almost one-third of the Texas workforce may face a reversal in fortune. According to projections by the state Workforce Commission, workers with technical skills, who were once thought to have a firm hold on the middle class, are now vulnerable to the twin perils of technological obsolescence and jobs that move offshore.

The problem these workers face can be traced to a shift away from manufacturing, an unfortunate change exacerbated by misguided public policy, according to commission Chairman Tom Pauken.

To change the game, Pauken wants to eliminate the 35 percent federal corporate tax and the employer portion of the payroll tax in favor of a revenue-neutral consumption or value-added tax of 8 percent. It would be applied to all imports, and businesses would receive an 8 percent credit for all exports that would count against their total consumption. Such a policy would tip the economy in favor of domestic manufacturing, bringing many jobs back home.

Read Governing editor-at-large Paul W. Taylor’s full article:

Washington Post: In Iowa’s Largely Open GOP Field, Tim Pawlenty is the First to Make Inroads

May 2, 2011

By Michael Leahy, Saturday, April 30, 9:22 PM
Sioux Center, Iowa — The 2012 presidential campaign is already underway here, quietly though not coyly. The coy get punished in Sioux County as too smooth, too big for their britches. This is a place that favors candidates who speak plainly, signal their intentions early and demonstrate an appreciation for northwestern Iowa’s immutable rhythms. This is the season when the dreamers with swelling White House ambitions are supposed to call Sioux Republican officials like Randy Feenstra.

Amid Sioux County’s corn and soybean fields, laid with fresh manure, sits the main drag of the quiet little town of Hull and the small business office of Feenstra, a state senator who has an outsize political importance every four years. The photos on the walls serve as testaments to his soldier role in Republican politics, pictures of him alongside George W. Bush and other party titans. “You kind of expect all that here,” Feenstra said, nonchalantly.

What surprises Feenstra is that his phone hasn’t been ringing much. Some of the Republican presidential dreamers are waiting, he suspects; others can’t decide whether they want to contest Iowa. As Feenstra looks on with puzzlement at those not calling, he finds himself gravitating toward the one likely candidate who is, the candidate who started courting Feenstra and other Sioux GOP officials a full year ago, the one off to a noticeably quick start here — former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.

A Pawlenty aide phoned Feenstra early in 2010, asking whether his boss could do anything for him. It was one of many calls Pawlenty and his aides made to Sioux County party operatives and officials. What has happened since offers a window not only to Pawlenty’s strategy but also to the heart of Sioux — what stirs its political soldiers, what its residents expect to hear, and how Pawlenty, in hitting the resonant chords, has visibly bolstered his chances even before formally declaring his candidacy.

Pawlenty’s wooing of Iowans is a classic approach for a politician in his position — an established contender but without the national profile of Sarah Palin or the money of Mitt Romney. Jimmy Carter was the first to win Iowa this way, and seemingly every four years since, someone tries it anew, some to great effect and some to hardly any at all. The question this time is whether it will pay off for Pawlenty, with a win in the state’s February caucus or with a strong-enough second- or third-place showing to catapult a relative unknown to the nomination.

In the early going, Pawlenty has started to win over a number of influential officials. Local college professor Tim Rylaarsdam, a former Sioux County Republican chairman, says he feels closer to supporting Pawlenty than to anyone else. Another past county party chairman says several influential local Republicans are leaning toward Pawlenty. The current county party chair says that if forced to choose today, no one would rank above Pawlenty.

But all this qualified praise for Pawlenty betrays a muted leeriness: Few in Sioux have been deeply turned on by anyone, including him. Potential backers are “leaning” his way, or “getting close.” In a largely empty field, Pawlenty has made an impression, but that’s all for now.

The hesitance reflects the Republican mind-set throughout Iowa and the rest of the country. National polls show that no one among the party’s prospective candidates has yet to excite many hearts. Some local leaders are fishing about for someone fresh to attach their hopes to. Nick Lantinga, a former Sioux County Republican chairman, for instance, is trying to persuade friends to consider launching a campaign effort for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, even though Christie has ruled out a run.

“I’ve been hearing good things about Pawlenty, but I’ve been very impressed by Christie,” said Lantinga, who serves as executive director of an international organization that promotes Christian higher education. He also serves as the board president for a local Christian school.

Nonetheless, Lantinga and Feenstra, who know of surveys showing Pawlenty polling in single digits, appreciate what they regard as the Minnesotan’s leadership skills and his dogged attentiveness to Iowa, qualities they think might provide the spark for a Pawlenty surge. And yet neither is sure.

Making inroads

Feenstra, running last year for the state Senate, enthusiastically responded yes to the Pawlenty aide’s suggestion of help: It would be nice, he said, if T-Paw could speak on Feenstra’s behalf at Dordt College, a Christian school in Sioux Center where he would be hosting a fundraiser before a modest crowd of about 100 Iowans.

Pawlenty arrived in Sioux County, answered questions at a private roundtable session with select Republicans, shook every hand and delivered a short talk at Dordt in which he praised Feenstra while emphasizing his own positions on social issues, including his stances against abortion and same-sex marriage. Feenstra left impressed and grateful.

“Pawlenty made a lot of inroads with key people in this area — party people, professors, businessmen, doctors, people with clout,” Feenstra said. “He didn’t have the glitz or glamour of Mitt Romney. But he came off as a common person like [Mike] Huckabee — you believed him, you could relate to him. He had the touch. . . . And he was the only one coming out this way. He was smart to jump in early. No one has ever done well here when he waited and waited.”

Not long afterward, Pawlenty called and asked Feenstra for his support, the first of several calls to Feenstra over the next several months. Feenstra told Pawlenty that he was leaning his way but that he could not endorse him without first learning about the plans of his friend Sen. John Thune of South Dakota.

In February, after Thune announced that he would not be running and Pawlenty made another speech at Dordt College, Feenstra received another call from his suitor. Feenstra felt himself on the brink of offering an endorsement, flattered by Pawlenty’s attention, appreciative of his earlier help. “I’m getting close,” he told Pawlenty.

Now, on a spring afternoon, Feenstra was riding out of Hull in his dusty tan Oldsmobile with its 113,000 miles on it, whizzing alongside the corn and soybean fields, and talking Sioux politics, which he saw as a template for Republican politics throughout the state. “You better know what matters here if you’re running for something,” he said. He pointed at an enormous structure through which hundreds of squatty blurry animals can be seen roaming in a wave. “Hog confinements,” he said brightly. “Produce manure — fantastic manure. Your productivity for corn jumps to 200 bushels an acre with it.”

Past the magic manure, Feenstra remembered something else about the first of Pawlenty’s appearances at Dordt. “He talked some about ag. He talked about what people wanted to hear — people don’t want you to come here and talk on and on about Libya.”

It was noon on a Friday, and Feenstra and a local state representative were scheduled to conduct a joint lunchtime forum with about a dozen constituents just outside of Sioux County.

Afterward, a farmer named Mike Ver Steeg stayed behind for a couple of minutes to chat. He wore jeans, a dusty gray T-shirt and the distracted look of a man thinking about the hogs he needed to tend to.

Ver Steeg wondered how seriously the would-be presidents regarded people such as him and whether they underestimated Iowans’ political intensity.

“We’re kind of quiet sometimes, but our values determine everything,” he said. “I want a good Christian to be president.”

It is a familiar phrase around northwestern Iowa, where an estimated 99 percent-plus of the religious are Christian. Diversity, as one observer remarked with a smile, is “one of those Eastern words.” Romney’s Mormonism posed a problem for him in Sioux County during 2008. Local Republican activists recall friends and family members openly voicing misgivings, dismissing Mormonism as too “exotic” and sometimes “un-Christian.”

“His being a Mormon last time was a bigger thing than I’d anticipated,” said Orange City Council member Mick Snieder, Romney’s 2008 Sioux County chairman. He hasn’t received a call in the past year from anyone in the Romney organization, leading him to suspect that Romney might not contest Iowa in a serious way in 2012. “His religion is probably still an issue here. For someone looking for a conservative, evangelical Christian, he’s not a fit.”

In this regard, too, Pawlenty has connected early. “He is comfortable discussing his Christianity and values,” Feenstra said. “If I had to do it today, I’d endorse Pawlenty — he is very comfortable with the same things I’m comfortable with. It’s just like I told him. I’m very, very close.”

Close, but not there. Feenstra hoped to hear from other possible candidates, maybe Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. He regarded other aspirants with less interest. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Romney — all had various shortcomings, he said. And besides, they hadn’t been around here anytime recently.

That left Pawlenty, to whom he was grateful. “Yeah, probably going to be Pawlenty,” he said. “Almost there with him.” He paused, nodded and looked out the window at hogs. A long moment passed. “But I just would like to see one or two of the others before then. But Pawlenty has done everything I need. Probably going to be Pawlenty, getting there. He has done a lot to earn it. Soon. Probably.”


While Feenstra moved ever closer to Pawlenty, Nick Lantinga keeps gravitating toward Christie. “Christie is great on spending cuts,” he said, “but he does it through the perspective of saving people’s pensions and helping schools – it’s not just cuts for the sake of cuts. And he’s strong on the social issues.”

In 1997, the Michigan-bred Lantinga arrived with his family in Sioux County, after a stint in graduate school in Chicago, and soon found that his no-nonsense style was too hot for Sioux. “Someone told me I had to bring it down a notch,” he said. “In Iowa, it’s not enough for a candidate to be good on the issues; people are also looking for someone easygoing, someone they’re comfortable with.”

“Iowa-nice,” one of Lantinga’s friends calls it.

Viewing Christie as ideal on the issues and amiable enough for Iowa, Lantinga had begun floating the governor’s name to about 10 Republican activists around Sioux Center, the biggest city in the county.

Lantinga sat down in a coffee shop with Ralph Goemaat, one of Lantinga’s former precinct captains. Goemaat had supported Huckabee in ’08, but now he smilingly described himself as “one of those sick-and-tired people” willing to consider someone new.

“What about Chris Christie?” Lantinga asked him.

Goemaat knew the name. “I hear some good things,” he said, “but the rap on him is social issues.”

Lantinga smiled and said: “He’s very pro-life. I think he might shake things up.”

Goemaat listened to his friend’s pitch for a while before weighing in. “He’s a committed fiscal conservative — okay, he’s good there,” Goemaat said. “But I still have questions about the other parts.” His shrug said that Christie didn’t do it for him.

The talk turned to Gingrich and his intellect, and then to Gingrich’s two divorces. “His track record on marriage isn’t all that good,” Goemaat said. “Forgiveness is important, but he carries a lot of baggage.”

Lantinga raised his finger and grinned, having just remembered something. “I heard that [Kentucky Sen.] Rand Paul said that Gingrich has more positions on Libya than wives.”

The two men laughed. Gingrich was out for them.

Then, unbidden, Goemaat mentioned Pawlenty as someone seemingly gaining traction. Goemaat had never considered Pawlenty before hearing his speech in February at Dordt, where about 250 spectators gathered — the candidate’s biggest crowd yet in Sioux County. “I went in there not thinking seriously about him at all,” Goemaat said.

Pawlenty’s speech emphasized social-conservative themes that impressed Goemaat, who ticked off the points: “Foundation of biblical teachings; right-to-life; one-man, one-woman marriage; and that our rights come first from God, not from government.”

Goemaat turned to Lantinga and assessed Pawlenty’s performance. “He wasn’t as charismatic as some others, but he’s a likable dude,” Goemaat said. “He’s now somebody I have to give a second look to, even if he has a long ways to go with me.”

That same day, Lantinga headed toward Orange City, where he walked into the office of the current Sioux County Republican chairman, Mark Lundberg, an investment counselor.

Lundberg talked with Lantinga for a while about some of the possible candidates, doing his best to project neutrality, mixing any doses of skepticism with lavish praise.

Gingrich is “brilliant,” Lundberg said, but a “tough sell for social conservatives because of his personal life.” Huckabee has the resources and reputation, but no one knows whether he’ll run. Palin would “play fine here,” but “the question is whether that leads to votes, whether she has sufficient support.” Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann “has all the right conservative credentials. But if Palin ran, those two would probably split the same peeps.” Romney “has a lot of good traits. But I don’t know if he’ll play in Iowa this time.”

Lundberg said he didn’t want to endorse anyone for a while. But then, choosing his words carefully, he said, “If I had to pick right now today, I’d lean as much toward Pawlenty as anybody in the race.”

Lundberg mulled that over. “He’s been here to the county three times already,” he said. “I met with him and five or six others over at the Holiday Inn. Talks well about economic development. What he said about social values was good. He has all the tools. . . . I feel like I’ve gotten to know him pretty well. And you’re not going to support anyone you haven’t met and spent time with here.”

That analysis serves as both an invitation and a warning to the rest of the field. “You don’t want to move too late here,” Lundberg added. Priding himself on detecting political tremors before they become seismic events, Lundberg had carefully taken note of a recent Iowa rumbling. Eric Woolson, Huckabee’s 2008 Iowa campaign manager, had publicly declared a willingness to work for Pawlenty. Soon, Woolson signed on to be a senior adviser to Pawlenty, in charge of his Iowa communications effort.

“Getting Eric is really key at this point,” said Lundberg, who viewed Woolson’s decision as a signal that several other notable Iowa Republicans thought they saw a winner in Pawlenty. “Eric basically is a hired gun. So if he wants to come in with Pawlenty, it’s because he thinks he sees something good happening.”

Sensing that Christie won’t run, Lantinga said he would consider Pawlenty, Huckabee and Daniels. “Pawlenty isn’t just a pocketbook conservative,” Lantinga said. “He has demonstrated he understands the important social values. So maybe.”

And that’s how it happens here. Republican voters and kingmakers alike assume they will be aggressively courted by the would-be presidents, wooed until they are wowed. Almost by default, one candidate roaming this county is on the brink of having executed an early seduction. Sioux needs attention. Sioux likes a steady suitor.