Iowa’s Top Republican Sizes Up 2012 Field

BY David Chalian and terence and burlij  February 28, 2011 at 12:06 PM EST

Iowa Republicans may be souring somewhat on Sarah Palin. According to a Des Moines Register poll out Monday morning, Palin’s favorable numbers have slipped from 71 percent to 65 percent in the last 15 months, while the segment of Iowa Republicans who view her unfavorably has grown from 23 percent to 30 percent.

One Iowa Republican, Gov. Terry Branstad, is eager to see if Palin and/or Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., take the plunge because he thinks their participation could be a game changer in the 2012 caucuses.

“If Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann participate, this could break all records and could get to be really really wide open and very interesting,” Gov. Branstad told the Morning Line over the weekend while he was in Washington attending the National Governors Association winter meeting.

“What really intrigues me is I’ve seen the kinds of crowds that Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin can draw and we have not had these kind of strong women candidates before. That’s another dimension that is kind of intriguing, I guess,” he said.

Gov. Branstad, who is just starting to serve in his second tour of duty at the statehouse after serving as Iowa’s governor from 1983 to 1999, has watched the caucus process from a front row seat for several competitive Republican contests.

He walked us through his thoughts on several of the high-profile, potential candidates.

On Mike Huckabee: “Huckabee obviously won the state last time; you gotta consider him the favorite. I’m not even sure he’s going to run. But if he does, I think he’s obviously the favorite.”

On Tim Pawlenty: “Pawlenty, from neighboring state of Minnesota, was a very fine governor there. I think certainly somebody to look at and I think he’s going about it in the right way. He’s putting an organization together.”

On Haley Barbour: “We have a lot of respect for Haley. He did a great job with Republican Governors Association. I go way back with him when he was chair of the Republican Party and I was chair of the Republican governors. Don’t underestimate Haley.”

On Mitch Daniels: “We think he was the first governor that really took the fiscal bull by the horns and has wrestled it to the ground in Indiana. I think you’ve got other governors now who are saying, [Chris] Christie and [Scott] Walker, and many many others that are taking this on now.”

On Rick Santorum: “There are a lot of social conservatives in Iowa.”

On Mitt Romney: “My guess is Romney has a little different strategy. He’s not going to spend as much money or as much organization in Iowa. But I think he recognizes that the does need to compete in Iowa if he’s going to run again. I think that’s important. I think he recognizes that he’s not the favorite in Iowa. On the other hand, if he does compete and do better than people expect — last time the problem was he was the favorite.”

Even as the social conservative wing has grown more politically potent inside the Republican caucus-going electorate, Gov. Branstad says their votes alone will not determine the winner.

“Those people that think that only a social conservative’s got a chance in Iowa are wrong,” he said, adding, “The economic issues and the future ability of America to compete in the world — solving America’s fiscal mismanagement and debt has got to be at the top of the list. And then restoring our competitiveness and bringing jobs back.”

The governor plans on staying neutral at the beginning of the process, but reserves the right to back a horse as the caucuses approach.

“At the end of the day if there’s somebody that I just think, ‘This is the person that I think has the best chance to lead America back,’ I’m not ruling out the possibility of saying that,” said Gov. Branstad. “On the other hand, I’m humble enough to know that I’m just one vote. Iowa voters are very independent. Endorsements don’t mean that much. At the end of the day, voters are going to make their own decision on who they think is the best and most capable candidate.”

Although he has had no conversations with Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott about the Sunshine State’s effort to jump ahead of Iowa in the calendar, Gov. Branstad is convinced Iowa will continue to play its traditional kickoff role.

“We will be number one as we always have been,” he said. “If we have to move it, as we did four years ago, to the third of January, we’ll do it. Iowa is committed to maintaining our leadership position.”

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