You’ve probably spotted the most popular man in Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad, in a cutaway shot during the debates. With his wire-rim glasses, drooping mustache, and salt-and-pepper hair, he’s a picture of calm, the professorial politician. Over and over on live television, Republican presidential candidates shower him with praise. But Branstad rarely reacts; he’ll twitch an eyebrow, maybe nod. He’s content, he tells me, to stay in the background, watching.
Branstad, a 65-year-old attorney, was elected last year, ousting incumbent Democrat Chet Culver. It’s his second stint at Terrace Hill, the governor’s mansion; Iowa politicos quip that with his whiskers and split tenure, he’s the Midwest’s Grover Cleveland. Branstad previously held office from 1983 to 1999 and retired as Iowa’s longest-serving chief executive. A few years later, he became president of Des Moines University, a medical college.
But Branstad, who, at age 36, was the youngest governor in Iowa’s history during his first term, wanted to reenter the political fray. He lives and breathes politics, he says, and has been participating in Iowa’s caucuses, in one form or another, since the late 1960s, when he was a College Republican at the University of Iowa. This cycle, as usual, he is watching the latest sprint with interest. And he is an impartial observer, having decided early on not to endorse.
Branstad has not always sat on the sidelines. He did not endorse during the 1988 or 2008 caucuses, but did support Bob Dole in 1996 and Lamar Alexander, and then George W. Bush, in 2000. After those experiences, Branstad prefers to follow the scramble like any other political junkie, debating who’s up and who’s down, observing instead of stumping.
This year, he says, the contest is shaping up to be one of the best in decades, with nearly every candidate in contention and many conservatives undecided about their favorite. “There are only three tickets out of Iowa,” Branstad says, arguing that a top-three finish is likely necessary to sustain a national campaign. “At this point, nothing is really settled, and the lead could easily change hands between now and January 3. It’s a very fluid race, it’s very wide open.”
As the clock ticks, Branstad is keeping an eye on five factors.
Ron Paul’s organization: Branstad says that Paul, a Texas congressman and libertarian, has built an impressive ground operation, with hundreds of signs dotting rural highways and scores of energetic college students canvassing throughout Iowa’s 99 counties. “He’s gone about it the old-fashioned way, and I think he deserves a lot of credit,” Branstad says. “He’s put a lot of time, effort, and resources into the state.” Paul’s message, he adds, is also resonating, blending pro-life politics with a hard emphasis on monetary policy and budget cuts.
Branstad notes that Paul, unlike Newt Gingrich, has been doing this for months, and that his second-place showing in August’s GOP straw poll in Ames hints at his statewide strength, both in the “Golden Circle” near Des Moines and in the western region of the state, which tends to back fiery, small-government candidates. If Paul sustains his momentum, bringing new, non-traditional coalitions into the mix, he could win. Unlike last cycle, when Paul focused solely on stirring grassroots fervor, his advisers are spending millions on media and mailings.