Friday, December 30, 2011

First things first: the candidate best positioned to win the Republican presidential caucuses next Tuesday in Carroll County is clearly Newt Gingrich. The former Speaker of the U.S. House has put the work in here with three visits to Santa Maria Winery involving generous allotments of time, unhurried posing for pictures with folks and intellectually engaging speeches.

Gingrich also fielded direct questions about his admitted marital infidelities and seemed to satisfy most conservatives I’ve talked with about his path to redemption and reconnection to faith.

Most of all, Republicans are spoiling for a fight with President Obama. They think Gingrich has the intellectual ballast, the boldness and the force of will to challenge the president.

“He (President Obama) is going to stick to his guns, what he believes in,” said Paul DeShaw, a Carroll Republican who has been involved with party politics here since the GOP held its meetings in a phone booth during the Democratic electoral stranglehold of much of the last 50 years.  “He (Obama) wants there to be a dialogue on which direction this country could go in. Now that happens to be a direction different than I believe in — and I think the Republicans have to put forth an answer to that challenge. We have to have a definitive difference.”

DeShaw thinks Gingrich will win Carroll County. He’s right.

The candidate with the  indisputable common touch where rural Iowa conservatives are concerned is Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who visited Carroll three times, and like Gingrich, never appeared in a hurry to race out of town.

Santorum — who is surging in the polls — has unchallenged credentials on opposition to abortion and  support of traditional marriage and the right voting record on other issues of importance to conservatives. During speeches here, he’s effectively tied social issues to the economy, noting that, for example, single parents are more likely to be in need of government assistance.

Santorum’s accessible, approachable, and culturally the most like Carroll County.

About two weeks ago, on Iowa Public Radio’s “The Exchange,” I observed that one of the great mysteries of the Iowa Caucuses was Santorum’s failure to launch. Perhaps he’s been unfairly saddled with a loss to U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., in 2006 — an awful year for most Republicans.

Moving through the field, I can’t recall anyone at a Republican gathering I’ve covered voicing any enthusiastic support for Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who did not campaign here in 2011 (although he was in Carroll twice in the 2008 cycle). That said, Dan Dirkx of rural Auburn, a Republican candidate for the Iowa Legislature in 2010, told me something Thursday that makes sense: older people watch a lot of television and Romney is all over the airwaves with advertisements now.

For Carroll County, the Taking Note prediction for Tuesday’s caucuses is as follows:

Newt Gingrich

Rick Santorum

Mitt Romney

Ron Paul

*****

As for the full state, this is no great revelation but U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is going to benefit from a caucus process that has essentially split into three contests — the libertarian race, where people are interested in limited government, no matter the means; the social conservative race within the race (trending heavily toward Santorum); and the more establishment battle between Romney and Gingrich, despite the latter’s protestations of the label and claim to outsider status. Paul is going to dominate that first category.

The Texan proved his team’s organizational strength with a second-place finish at the Iowa Republican Straw Poll in Ames. He’s bringing non-traditional caucus-goers into the process, younger people who don’t have land-based phone lines and are more likely to fly under the radar of pollsters.

Recent revelations of racist content in his newsletters are chalked up to eccentricities in the Paul persona, and not viewed as fatal character flaws. His people will vote.

Santorum benefits as much as anything from the premature departure of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who exited before most people could wipe the stray barbeque from their faces after a poor showing in the Ames straw poll. Pawlenty, who spent a king’s ransom of campaign funds on the straw poll circus, would be the last-minute choice of many an Iowa Republican this week — were he around.

He has to be kicking himself from St. Paul to the Canadian border — or at least watching more videos of hockey fights (one of his hobbies).

But the reality is Pawlenty is not here, which means the opportunity of a political lifetime for Santorum, who visited all 99 counties and campaigned as if it were 1988, shaking hands, eating Pizza Ranch and answering questions about foreign policy from Carroll voters with as much earnestness as if he were on the Senate floor.

Left for dead in June, Gingrich has re-emerged and is seeking to position himself as a political descendent of Kennedy and Reagan and even Thomas Jefferson.

Gingrich talks freely of travel in space, and effortlessly pulls historical references that make him seem, well, sort of historical in the present to certain pliable audiences.

With Romney, I have an admitted western Iowa perspective. Perhaps Dirkx is right about those television ads. And maybe my colleagues and sources in central and eastern Iowa are correct. There are more people there than here, and Romney may  do very well. My instinct says he won’t statewide.

The Taking Note prediction for the full state in the Iowa Republican Caucuses:

Ron Paul

Rick Santorum

Newt Gingrich

Mitt Romney

*****

Should the Iowa Caucuses unfold this way the big story would be Romney’s lackluster finish. That would give former Utah Governor and one-time Obama ambassador to China Jon Huntsman a game-changing momentum in New Hampshire where he is running an aggressive campaign. Huntsman can do well in larger states further down the primary calendar.

Ironically, Huntsman, who, channeling Stephen Bloom, called us all a bunch of corn pickers incapable of seeing a president of the United States in a stamp collection the other day, may end up being the real winner of the Iowa Caucuses.