February 28, 2013

Congressman Steve King - not a person one usually associates with Shakespeare in word games - is playing a convincing Hamlet with his teasing and toying and yo-yo-ing over a possible bid for the U.S. Senate.

The Kiron politician is the Republican keeping other Republicans in a holding pattern. The rest of the potential field is like so many airliners backed up behind a jet at Omaha's Eppley Airfield bound for a blizzarded Chicago. King's got to get off the ground, or get out of the way, before anyone else tips a wing.

Except Gov. Terry Branstad, who, perhaps inspired by the recent unearthing of the 16th-century bones of Britain's King Richard III, is seeking to crown our next statewide ambassador to Washington from his perch at Terrace Hill.

This past weekend, Branstad said that U.S. Rep. Tom Latham, R-Clive, the 20-year veteran of Congress - who has represented much of the state through redistricting - would be the Republicans' wise choice for the open seat created with Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin's imminent retirement.

Latham, 64, buried that idea Wednesday in announcing he has no intention of running for the Senate.

The Clive Republican barely hit "send" on a mass email before we started reading about Branstad floating Plan B - one that didn't involve Mr. King.

Branstad is peddling the prospect of the state's highest-paid intern, Lt. Kim Reynolds, as a U.S. Senate candidate. Perhaps she can fit in campaign events between classes at Upper Iowa University where she is seeking a degree in public administration.

"I know the respect and support she has throughout Iowa," Branstad said in a statement provided to The Associated Press. "I have been greatly impressed with the work she has done here in the lieutenant governor's office and would urge her to explore a run."

Just days ago, Branstad scolded national GOP operative Karl Rove and allies for seeking to douse any fires behind a statewide King candidacy.

Now he wants to sideline King, Iowa conservatism's Movement Man, and send in Republican Dream Girl with her Rorschach smile.

Conservatives have unshakable faith in King. They know that if King had been at the Last Supper, Christ never would have been crossed. That's how deeply they trust their man.

Come on, clever journalists, monied liberals, take your best shot, King says as he wins election after election, doubling down on his often controversial remarks.

Then there's Reynolds, whose worldview could probably be described with space to spare in a 140-character tweet. Has she been in the trenches, fighting for the foundational conservative issues? Hardly. When pressed, Reynolds will cave and give you civil unions for gay couples. That's on record.

Republicans more interested in winning than making statements lost to history will look further in recruiting a 2014 U.S. Senate candidate.

And they are in luck. There is a Republican who can hold the base (as King would) and reach suburban independents and certain rural Democrats (as the theory goes with Reynolds).

In his campaign for governor in 2010, Rod Roberts, a former state representative from Carroll who is now director of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, showed natural presence on a statewide stage.

An evangelical Christian who has helped to develop churches in Iowa, Roberts is the real deal on the issues that animate the GOP base.

At the same time, remarkably, Roberts, an affable, approachable man, who is firm but not mean, can reach independents and conservative Democrats. Roberts has spent a hefty share of his time in public service on education and economic development.

Roberts conveys conviction. There's no hate with Roberts. That comes through to voters, who, while they may not agree with much of his platform, don't come away feeling like outsiders in Roberts' world.

Roberts has campaigned across Iowa. He earned enormous goodwill when, at the 2010 state GOP convention, he supported Branstad's choice of Reynolds for lieutenant governor when the atmosphere was ripe for mutinous maneuvering that could have landed the Carroll Republican with the No. 2 gig. He's shown loyalty to Branstad, which is the coin of the realm in politics.

Moreover, where Rove and national strategists, the big money men, are concerned, Roberts is no ball-dropper. He's steady on his feet, a step ahead of the reporters' questions, a political fish who knows how to swim around the bait. Roberts won't pull the grenade pin in his own foxhole, blowing up months of work, tens of millions of dollars in donations, with a stray comment on rape, an errant characterization of an immigrant.

At the end of the day, elections come down to likability and trust.

The Democrats are fielding a candidate with enormous skill in Congressman Bruce Braley of Waterloo. Braley can use the "D" label to run up margins in the cities. He'll connect brilliantly with women in the suburbs as he projects a conciliatory charisma. Braley comes across as the kind of husband who wouldn't be uncomfortable stumbling into his wife's book club.

What's more, Braley's no silver-spooner. A native of rural Iowa, Brooklyn to be precise, Braley can play in Republican territory too. He's great at appearing post partisan.

A Braley-King race would be extraordinary in that it would give Iowans a clear choice in both style and substance. It would be heavyweight politics the likes of which Iowa hasn't seen - in modern times at least. Maybe ever, considering the money involved now.

But the outcome is predictable.

King, while masterful and never to be underestimated, won't be able to get past the mountain of doubt that is the public record of more than a decade of his own statements. He's used the microphone to build a national brand, but the tape recorder will kill his statewide ambition. Ironic, isn't it.

To be sure, King will run a valiant race with no retreat. Conservatives will be proud to say they supported King. But they'll watch Vice President Joe Biden swear Braley into the Senate in January 2015 - for six years of service, and thousands of votes with which they disagree.

In short, King can't beat Braley.

Roberts, more than any other Iowa Republican, can match Braley asset for asset. He's the GOP's star recruit, waiting to be signed. It's all there. Pencil out the pro-con charts. Do the math.

If Republicans can't see the bright, shining obvious, they deserve to lose to Braley.