Sioux City, a meatpacking hub on Iowa’s western lip, hosted the latest Republican presidential debate on Thursday. Upbeat supporters packed the downtown convention center, cheering the contenders. But the real drama, according to Iowa politicos, was not onstage but in the small towns scattered along the two-lane highways nearby, where thousands of flinty conservatives remain undecided.
During the 2008 cycle, western Iowa boosted Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister, who won the caucuses against better-financed competitors. This year, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich may lead statewide polls, but GOP operatives see four candidates — Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Ron Paul — with the potential to surprise on a cold January night.
“They call this area God’s country for a reason,” says Chuck Laudner, a Santorum adviser and longtime strategist for Rep. Steve King, the tea-party favorite who represents the region in Congress. “These voters are Christian, constitutional conservatives. They know what they want, they’re like-minded, and they organize themselves, paying little attention to television ads and campaign maneuvers.”
More important to western Iowa conservatives is the personal interaction they have with candidates. The importance of one’s ground game has diminished elsewhere in the state, due to online outreach, but in the sparsely populated counties hundreds of miles from Des Moines, “it’s still about word of mouth, neighbor to neighbor,” Laudner says. “This isn’t the hinterlands, but people do things their own way.”
Perry, for his part, is cognizant of the region’s sensibilities and has spent much of this week on a bus tour, stopping in Council Bluffs and Storm Lake, along with a handful of western Iowa hamlets. His advisers see opportunity here, and his television ads, which focus on his Christian values, are part of his attempt to climb back into contention, fueled by a grassroots, anti-establishment western bloc.
“This was a natural place for us to start our final push,” says Bob Haus, Perry’s Iowa campaign chairman. “His roots, coming from the Texas farmland, help a lot. One of his clear strengths is retail politics, one-on-one campaigning, and that’s what people in western Iowa expect.” Perry’s “deep faith,” he says, is another factor, especially in a region that is home to many religious conservatives and evangelicals.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.), who won the Ames straw poll in August, is also paying close attention to western Iowa, and has visited the area frequently this fall. She begins her 99-county bus tour of the state in northwestern Iowa this weekend, starting in Sioux City and then heading south to Denison. But her advisers note that she is more than a western wooer — she plays statewide.