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February 17th, 2010

Evaluating the Potential 2012 Caucus Candidates

A year from now, the 2012 presidential campaigns will already be in operation in Iowa in advance of the First in the Nation caucuses.  In February of 2007, Mitt Romney formally announced his campaign in the midst of a February snowstorm, but we already knew who most of the players were going to be by that time.

As the presidential traffic begins to increase in Iowa, it’s time once again to see where the potential field of candidates currently stands.  While the list is packed with familiar names at the top, I believe it could be the names in the bottom half of this list that could be the newsmakers in 2012 coming out of Iowa.

We are once again getting ready enjoy the greatest political thrill ride in the world, the First in the Nation Iowa Caucuses.

1. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin

Palin in IowaSarah Palin has made the transition from politician to celebrity.  One only needs to look at the media attention she receives when she gives a keynote speech at the national Tea Party convention or sits down with Fox News’ Chris Wallace for an in-depth interview to confirm her celebrity status.  While many wondered how Palin could advance her own political career after unexpectedly stepping down as Alaska’s governor, she’s been everywhere since her Fourth of July resignation.  Palin’s presence will only grow now that she is a Fox News contributor.

Palin’s brand of politics should play well with Iowa Republican. The most difficult task for any presidential candidate in Iowa is getting in front of enough Iowans who will participate in the First-in-the-Nation caucuses.  Palin will have no trouble attracting a crowd wherever she goes in Iowa.

Palin could also give Mike Huckabee a run for his money if he decides to run again when it comes to lining up support from the GOP base in Iowa. Palin would potentially have the ability to attract women from all political persuasions to her campaign. Part of the trick to winning the Iowa caucuses is finding a way to bring new people into the process, which is another thing that Palin will not have trouble with.  She has the potential to attract new women to the process while also appealing to the conservative base of the Republican Party, a powerful combination in Iowa.

Obstacle: While she would be the only celebrity in the race, she will likely be the most targeted candidate.  The attacks will not necessarily be from her political opponents, but from the main stream media. They hate her with a visceral passion, and while there are substantive questions about her abilities under pressure, this is not a good storyline to be fighting when you want to be the first female President.

Iowa Activist Perspective: “No caucus candidate will be as closely followed and scrutinized as Sarah Palin.  [Because] she so rankles the mainstream media, she naturally gains plenty of conservative fans. Plus, the media pummeling will create the first measurable voting bloc of women in presidential voting.”  Chuck Laudner – Former Chief of Staff for Congressman Steve King/Former Executive Director of the Republican Party of Iowa.

2. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee

Huck DDHuckabee might be the best communicator in the Republican field, and he’s already proved that can get you a long way in a state like Iowa.  The winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses will remain on the top half of this list until there is no doubt that he’s not going to run for President.  Unlike the other potential candidates on this list, Huckabee has his hands in the Republican gubernatorial primary in Iowa.  Huckabee’s Iowa Caucus chairman, Bob Vander Plaats, is a candidate, and Huckabee has done all he can to help him.

Huckabee headlined an event for Vander Plaats in northwest Iowa and is slated to return to the state in just a couple of weeks for big Vander Plaats fundraiser.  Another Huckabee connection has helped Vander Plaats.  Chuck Norris held a fundraiser for Vander Plaats at his Texas ranch last fall.  There is risk/reward for Huckabee’s involvement in the Iowa gubernatorial primary.  If Vander Plaats wins the primary, it will make a loud statement about the Republican electorate.  If Vander Plaats loses, media types will say that the impact of social conservatives in this state has waned.  After Huckabee’s big win in the caucuses, people expect Vander Plaats to do well in the primary.

Obstacle: Looking ahead to 2012, Huckabee will have to deal with something new if he seeks the Republican nomination for president – expectations.  No longer will Huckabee be the underdog.  That means he needs to raise a lot of money, the turnout at his events need to be solid, his poll numbers in the state need to remain strong, and efforts to organize across the state need to be substantial.  He will have to hit the ground running if he does indeed run again.

Iowa Activist Perspective: “The 2008 caucus winner has continued national exposure via his FOX show and his ABC Radio program.  Huckabee is still considered fresh and not from the elite party establishment. With his common-sense approach, people instinctively trust him.” Bob Vander Plaats- Iowa Republican Gubernatorial Candidate/Former Huckabee for President Iowa Caucus Chairman.

3. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty

tpawOut of all the potential presidential candidates, Pawlenty is by far the most aggressive.  He has already announced that he will not run for governor again in 2010, but has spoken at Republican Party events in his neighboring state of Iowa, as well as New Hampshire.  He has also secured the services of two Iowa natives, Terry Nelson and Sara Taylor, both of whom have vast caucus experience.

Pawlenty came off well when he was the keynote speaker at the Republican Party of Iowa’s fall fundraiser.  He has been an outspoken critic of the Obama administration and a vocal opponent of the cash for clunkers plan and Obama’s health care proposal. He has also been critical of his own party.  In an interview in Esquire magazine, Pawlenty said, “The Republicans had their shot not long ago to address the real needs and concerns of everyday Americans, and they blew it.”

Tim Pawlenty raised about $1.3 million for his political action committee, the Freedom First PAC, in three months last year.  His leadership PAC allows him to help Republican candidates around the county while also helping him become a national player.

The well-spoken neighboring governor from the north has already shown the ability to relate to Iowans.  He also has already embraced Iowa’s First in the Nation Status.  Last November, Governor Pawlenty told, “ [The caucuses are] a wonderful demonstration of democracy at a grassroots level. The people of Iowa take it very seriously, and they take time to learn about the candidates and their positions. There is a great fidelity that the people of Iowa attach to the process. It’s a terrific and helpful tradition. I have great respect for the caucuses, and Iowa should retain their [first in the nation] status.”

Obstacle: Pawlenty lacks the star power of Palin and the personal wealth of a candidate like Romney.  That means he has to break through in Iowa to be a contender for the Republican nomination.  That could be a difficult task in a crowded field.

Iowa Activist Perspective: “Governor Pawlenty stands a strong likelihood of winning the Iowa Caucuses.  Iowa has a brother-like kinship with Minnesota.  Like many Iowans, Pawlenty shares the same heartland values instead of the loose values of both coasts.  Each time I’ve heard Governor Pawlenty speak he has gotten better.  He has all the positives that Mitt Romney has a candidate without all of the question marks about where he stands on social issues.”  Jamie Johnson – President, Iowa Republican Assembly

4. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney

Mitt RomneyMitt Romney hasn’t stepped foot in Iowa since right before the 2008 elections, and even that event was very low key.  That is all about to change as Romney is scheduled to be Iowa following the March 2nd release of his new book, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.”  Romney will return to the site of his Iowa Straw Poll victory, Iowa State University in Ames.

Romney is considered by most national pundits to be the frontrunner in the 2012 Republican presidential field.  Out of all the candidates, Romney had the best infrastructure of anyone in 2008, which means he wouldn’t have to start from scratch in Iowa for the 2012 caucuses.  Romney’s impressive political operation made huge strides early in 2007, but he became a victim of his own early success.

Romney’s boisterous Iowa campaign eventually caused some of his opponents like John McCain and Rudy Giuliani to focus on other states rather than contend with Romney’s well oiled machine in Iowa.  With McCain and Giuliani absent from Iowa, Romney was left with a bunch of second tier candidates who all happened to be to the right of him politically.  That would not have been the case had John McCain remained a viable Iowa candidate through the entire process.

The advantage Romney has in 2012 that he didn’t have in 2008 is that he doesn’t have to be the first candidate in the race.  He will undoubtedly have high expectations nationally, but his Iowa expectations will be much lower, especially if Mike Huckabee runs again.

Obstacle: Iowa could cause a problem for a second Romney attempt for the Republican nomination. Romney is most likely avoiding Iowa in an effort to keep his expectations in check this time around. However, the 2008 caucus campaign between Huckabee and Romney was bitter near the end, and his campaign’s ongoing feud with WHO’s local radio talent did him no favors. It’s also unlikely that those wounds will heal before caucus activity resumes, and Romney might still have  a bitter taste in his mouth about Iowa.

Iowa Activist Perspective: “Anyone watching the runaway spending in Congress and the Administration’s lack of focus on job creation understands why Mitt Romney would be an appealing candidate in 2012. Washington is in need of a real leader – someone who understands how jobs are created, how budgets are balanced, and most importantly, how to make America great again. But like Governor Romney, I’d prefer to focus on 2010 than 2012. There’s a lot we can do in 2010 together before worrying about 2012.” State Representative Renee Schulte

5. Texas Congressman Ron Paul

Ron Paul AmesIronically, the man who used the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party to raise $6 million for his presidential campaign in 2007 now finds himself being challenged in a primary by Tea Party activists.  Ron Paul is considered by many to be one of the founding fathers of the Tea Party movement, but that doesn’t matter to some in his Texas congressional district.  His opponents are attacking him for being associated with the Republican Party.

As you would suspect, Paul is expected to win his primary and re-election to Congress.  Paul finished fifth in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, but only a few thousand votes behind John McCain and Fred Thompson.  Had Paul begun to organize in Iowa earlier than he did, he probably could have finished in the top three, which would have been a huge boost for his campaign.

Paul has already been back to Iowa and was welcomed by large crowds.  If any candidate in the caucuses will be able to tap into the Tea Party movement in Iowa, it’s Ron Paul.  Paul’s libertarian views give him a solid base of support in the state, and he doesn’t have to start from scratch like he did in 2008.  Ron Paul + Tea Party = Trouble for traditional candidates in the caucuses.

Obstacle: At 74, Paul is the oldest of the potential presidential field.  Ronald Reagan was the oldest person ever to be elected President.  Reagan was almost 70 years old when he was inaugurated.  If he were to win the nomination, Paul would be six years older than Reagan was.  Another obstacle that he must overcome is how to woo Republican social conservatives.  Paul is extremely pro-life, but his libertarian positions, especially on foreign policy issues, make some social conservatives think he is a liberal.  If he, or maybe his protégé, is ever able to appeal to the party’s base and libertarians at the same time, Paul could build a winning coalition in Iowa.

Iowa Activist Perspective: “We started the last campaign with zero name ID in June of 2007 then climbed logarithmically at the end as Iowans learned of his positions on vital issues, in spite of the media and establishment Republicans marginalizing him as irrelevant. These last two years have demonstrated the accuracy of Ron Paul’s views and capability of his political leadership. The next two years will only magnify his popularity.”  Drew Ivers- Former Paul for President Iowa Campaign Manager/Iowa Campaign for Liberty Director.

6. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

NewtGingrichEverybody knows why Mike Huckabee loves Iowa, but if any candidate on this list is infatuated with the First in the Nation state, it’s Newt Gingrich.  For almost a decade Newt has been coming to Iowa to lend a hand and rally Republicans.  He doesn’t visit the Iowa State Fair for a photo op; he spends the entire day there networking.

In 2006, he toured the state to help Jim Nussle with his gubernatorial campaign.  Nussle’s wife Karen was a former Gingrich aide.  At the 2008 District conventions, Bob Vander Plaats flew around the state to promote Gingrich’s American Solutions.  Gingrich has been all across this state, and he didn’t just show up in advance of a presidential campaign.  Newt’s investment in Iowa will pay huge dividends if he does ever decide to run for President.

Obstacle: It is no secret that Gingrich probably has the most personal baggage out of any candidate on this list.  He has been married numerous times.  Sometimes he partners with liberal Democrats on issues like healthcare reform and global warming. Yet, maybe his biggest misstep yet was his support of DeDe Scozzafava in the special election for the 23rd Congressional District in New York.  Scozzafava dropped out and endorsed her Democrat opponent; meanwhile other Republicans with presidential aspirations backed the Conservative Party’s Doug Hoffman.

Iowa Activist Perspective: “I think any list has to include Newt Gingrich at the top.  He is the GOP’s solutions machine and the conservatives’ most articulate voice.”  Will Rogers- Co-Chairman of the Polk County Republican Party/Iowa Republican Campaign Veteran.

7. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum

SANTORUM SPEECHSantorum is scheduled to make his second trip to Iowa in less than a year when he returns to keynote the Iowa Christian Alliances spring fundraiser in March.  Many national political pundits scoff at the notion that Santorum could be a legitimate 2012 contender. Yet, the Iowa Caucuses are tailor made for him. It’s not just because Santorum is a staunch social and fiscal conservative, but because he might be one of the most complete conservatives to run. Santorum also has national security credentials, an area in which his potential caucus challengers are lacking.

When Santorum travels to Iowa, he doesn’t come alone.  In his October visit, he was accompanied by his longtime media consultant John Brabender. It never hurts for your media guy to get the lay of the land.  Santorum’s America’s Foundation PAC quietly raised $1.2 million in 2009.  Most of that appears to be collected by mail and telephone solicitations, which means Santorum has been expanding his donor file in advance of a potential presidential run.

Obstacle: For the most part, Santorum is unknown to most Iowans and doesn’t hold an elected office that allows him access to the news cycle.  For Santorum to have a shot, he also needs potential candidates like Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin to take a pass on 2012.  That’s not out of the question, but until they make their intentions known, Santorum will find it difficult to gain traction in Iowa.  Still, if you are looking for the 2012 version of Mike Huckabee, you might want to keep an eye on Santorum.

Iowa Activist Perspective: “Santorum has proven himself on a wide range of issues from welfare reform to issues dealing with the protection of innocent life.  He is well-spoken and should have a lot of appeal to the people who regularly turn out to the caucuses.”  Steve Scheffler-Iowa National Committeeman/President of the Iowa Christian Alliance.

8. South Dakota Senator John Thune

thuneIowans have a long history of helping their neighbors in times of need.  When it became apparent that Thune could knockoff then-Senate democratic Leader Tom Daschle, a number of Iowans were willing to give Thune a hand.  Now Thune might be looking for more help from Iowans if he opts to run for President.

Thune got the attention of some Iowans when he quipped, “I may go across Iowa, but it will be to get somewhere” last November.   Yet, if he wants to explore the possibility of national office, he will have to travel all across Iowa to get where he wants to go.  Thune has some other advantages too.  Many Iowans already know him, and the most conservative lot of caucuses goers who reside in northwest Iowa get their news from South Dakota. They have seen his campaign ads and are kept abreast of what he’s doing.  Talk about a home field advantage.

Obstacle: While Thune has headlined events for the Iowa GOP in 2008 and Congressman Steve King in 2009, you would think that a friendly neighbor might drop in a little bit more than he does.  Thune also needs to show that he has the fire in the belly to run for president if he jumps into the race.

Iowa Activist Perspective: “His senate candidacy mobilized armies of South Dakotans as well as Iowans and other neighbors who supported him. We were attracted to his values, his demeanor, his tenacity, and drive to not only defeat Daschle but advance Republican causes.  Senator Thune personifies Midwestern common sense, conservative values, and fearless leadership. His political acumen belies his small state roots. And it is precisely those roots making him such an attractive alternative to present Chicago-style political thuggery pervading the DC landscape. We’re tired of tarnished politicos and John Thune represents the ideals we conservatives are eager to see returned to prominence.” Ann Trimble-Ray- Sac County GOP Chairwoman

9. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels

Mitch DanielsThere is a four letter word that will dominate the campaigns in 2010 – JOBS.  As Republicans try to figure out the best way to campaign on the issues, they will probably end up modeling their campaigns after one man, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.  Despite a sour political environment in 2008, Daniels won re-election in Indiana by a robust 18 points.  Daniels, a former executive with Eli Lilly, is term limited and cannot stand for re-election in 2012, which only increases the presidential chatter.

In Iowa, it seems that one candidate, Terry Branstad, has already begun to model his campaign after what Daniels has been able to do in Indiana.  Branstad has even talked about Daniels on the campaign trail, but the connection runs much deeper than that.  Branstad’s media consultant is Kim Alfano-Doyle.  Alfano Communications just happens to be Daniels former media consultant.   Alfano-Doyle has done other work in Iowa.  Fred Thompson used her for his presidential campaign in 2008.  Candidates are typically loyal to their media vendors, which means Alfano-Doyle’s work for Branstad could help pave the way for Daniels to easily enter the Iowa political scene.

Obstacle: It’s hard to see many road blocks in Daniels’ way.  However, running for office in Indiana is a lot different than talking to Iowa’s conservative caucus goers.  There is no doubt that Daniels can deliver on economic issues and jobs in Iowa.  His record in Indiana is phenomenal.  But he must be comfortable talking about social issues if he plans to come to Iowa and run for President.  That is easier said than done.  Just ask Mitt Romney.

Iowa Activist Perspective: Grant Young, who worked for both George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign and McCain in 2008, has his eyes on Governor Daniels. Young told that though he has not met the governor personally, he has knows a number of people who have and they all say that he is a man of impeccable character. Young added that Governor’s workman like approach to creating jobs and growing the economy is exactly what our country needs.

10. Texas Governor Rick Perry

Rick PerryTexas Governor Perry is in the midst of a three-way gubernatorial primary.  If he avoids a run-off primary and coasts to re-election in the fall, he will likely catapult himself up the list of potential Republican presidential candidates. If he loses or struggles, he will quickly drop off the list.  Signs indicate that Perry will do what he needs to do to win re-election, which means he could be free to start traveling to Iowa as early as mid-November. Perry would bring a unique political mix to the race.  He’s considered to be the most conservative governor in Texas history, and he’s a big advocate of state’s rights.  That will play well with members of the Tea Party movement.

Obstacle: Perry will have to make up his mind in quick order if he wants to run for President.  He will already have missed “helping” Iowans in advance of the 2010 elections since he will be campaigning for re-election in Texas while the other people on this list will be campaigning for Republicans in Iowa.

Iowa Activist Perspective: “Governor Perry has started to pull away from his main opponent, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. If he dispenses with her in the primary, his re-election seems all but assured. And he has run on a message that, with the retirement of Senator Evan Bayh, has gotten a lot of national attention: Washington, D.C. is completely and utterly broken. Governor Perry is tough as nails, and his campaign has adopted organizational technology in a manner that will shock even the vaunted Obama Machine. If he’s interested, he would be an immediate force with which to reckon.” Bob Haus -Owner of Eagle Media/Longtime Iowa Caucus Veteran

Other candidates who were considered but just missed the list.

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour
Indiana Congressman Mike Pence
Georgia Congressman Tom Price

Photos of Palin, Huckabee, Pawlenty, and Paul by Dave Davidson

About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country. Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states. Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site, Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing. Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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