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July 27 (Bloomberg) -- Predictions by some Republicans of a diminished role for Iowa in picking the party’s 2012 presidential nominee may prove premature, especially if Texas Governor Rick Perry enters the race next month.
“He would be very well received in Iowa,” said Craig Robinson, editor of the Iowa Republican website and a former state party political director. “He’s the perfect mix for this political environment. He’s a social conservative who has also aligned himself with the Tea Party movement.”
Iowa’s status as the first battleground in presidential campaigns traditionally attracts critics, who say its population is too rural, white and old to reflect the U.S. as a whole. The criticism is especially strong on the Republican side because the party’s caucuses are dominated by social conservatives often drawn to candidates who lack the broader national appeal needed to win the presidency.
Expectations that Iowa could be something of a sideshow this election season were fueled by Mitt Romney’s decision to skip campaigning for the Aug. 13 Iowa Straw Poll, a party fundraising event designed to test the early popularity and organizational ability of presidential candidates. That has left two candidates whose national reach is questioned by political analysts -- U.S. Representatives Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas -- in stronger positions to win the poll.
Calls by Perry
A new narrative could emerge should Perry, 61, decide to enter the Republican contest and compete in Iowa after the straw poll. He is calling activists and politicians in the state to measure support, as his backers form a campaign-in-waiting.
Perry’s entry could also make the state more appealing for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who leads in national polls and fundraising among Republicans.
That’s because Perry has a strong appeal to the same Tea Party activists and social conservatives forming the base of support for Bachmann, who was in a statistical tie with Romney in the most recent Des Moines Register Iowa Poll. The result could be that they split that vote, helping Romney.
“The more crowded the race gets on the social-conservative right, the better it gets for Romney,” said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames.
Iowa first took on national political prominence in 1976, when Jimmy Carter’s strong showing in the Democratic caucuses helped launch him from virtual unknown to his party’s eventual nominee. Since then, the contests have played a vital role in virtually every presidential race.
Iowa’s importance in this election cycle, though, was cast in doubt when Romney announced June 9 that he wouldn’t compete in the straw poll. That followed a decision by former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. to forgo campaigning in Iowa, citing his opposition to subsidies for corn-based ethanol as too much of a political hurdle in a state with a large agriculture base.
Romney, even as he bypasses the straw-poll campaign, isn’t ignoring Iowa. Although he isn’t visiting the state as often as Bachmann or former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who have both made Iowa the centerpiece of their campaigns, he talked to almost 10,000 Iowans on a July 18 telephone conference call. He also has said he will attend a debate in the state two days before the straw poll and will visit that month the Iowa State Fair --a perennial stop for presidential hopefuls.
Doug Gross, an Iowa Republican who ran Romney’s 2008 statewide campaign and is unaligned now, said that especially if Perry enters the race, “I actually think Iowa is going to have as much, or more, impact than ever.”
Iowa is considered favorable turf for Perry to emerge as potentially Romney’s main challenger because of the sway exercised by the kind of voters who have propelled the Texan’s career. In Iowa’s 2008 Republican caucuses, 60 percent who attended described themselves to pollsters as born-again or evangelical Christians.
Four years ago those voters rallied behind former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee -- who began his presidential race as a little-known contender -- and fueled his victory in the 2008 caucuses. That proved his candidacy’s high point, and he ended his presidential run in March of that year. Senator John McCain of Arizona, after finishing fourth in Iowa in 2008, won the New Hampshire primary a week later and that propelled his path to the Republican nomination.
Bystrom, the political science professor, said Iowa risks losing some of its influence “if we have two election cycles where the Iowa Republicans pick the most popular social conservative, but not someone who can win the nomination.”
She added: “There are some Republicans who are concerned about that.”
Iowa, the biggest U.S. producer of corn and soybeans, saw its population increase 4.1 percent between 2000 and 2010 to 3 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Most of its growth occurred in the suburbs of its capital, Des Moines, and in college towns such as Iowa City.
At the least, the state is expected to cull the crowded field of 2012 Republican contenders and perhaps anoint Romney’s strongest challenger in New Hampshire, where he has focused his campaign and enjoys a wide lead in polls.
Perry told the Des Moines Register newspaper in a story published July 17 that he plans to make a decision about his presidential plans in two or three weeks.
“I suspect even the Huntsman people are re-looking at Iowa right now because they really can’t get their campaign on-track anyplace but in Iowa,” Gross said.
A spokesman for Huntsman, Obama’s former ambassador to China, said the campaign isn’t reconsidering its decision not to compete in Iowa.
“Our strategy, as we’ve laid out from the start, is focused on competing aggressively in each of the early primary states: New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida,” spokesman Tim Miller said in an e-mail.
Gentry Collins, a Republican strategist in Washington who is a former executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa, said Iowa will maintain its early place in future election cycles because it provides candidates a place where they can attract significant media attention at relatively little cost before voters deeply engaged in the process.
“Iowa hasn’t lost any of that and I think it would be hard to find any individual state that could replace it,” he said.
--Editors: Don Frederick, Robin Meszoly
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