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.”