A focus group of Iowa conservative activists gathered recently to discuss the upcoming caucuses. The group, organized by TheIowaRepublican.com in conjunction with McClatchy newspapers, included a retiree, a college student, Tea Party members, a GOP county co-chair, and some influential consultants. No one in the group has fully committed to a candidate and most were undecided.
The focus group offered wide-ranging views on several of the candidates. This was conducted last week, a few days prior to the most recent debate.
Here is a look at some of their responses in regards to the GOP presidential field:
The focus group offered praise, criticism and concerns about the former House Speaker. “I’m looking for someone who has wisdom and I think he has wisdom,” said Sarah Nelson, a retiree who has volunteered for several campaigns. “I want someone who really understands what made our country great and I think he understands that.”
Craig Bergman, a Tea Party activist and campaign veteran called Gingrich “the smartest unwise man in America. Because unwise means making bad choices.” Bergman is leaning strongly toward backing Gingrich, but feels incidents like appearing in a global warming ad with Nancy Pelosi give some conservatives reservations about supporting him.
Judd Saul, a Tea Party member and GOP activist from Black Hawk County offered the strongest criticism of Gingrich. “I’m just going by my gut. I shook the guy’s hand, looked him in the eye and he has no soul,” Saul said. “I don’t see a conviction. I don’t see a leader. I feel like I’m talking to a robot. I’ve talked to all the other candidates and none of them gave me the vibe that Gingrich did. He is not a guy you want to go have a beer with.”
Eric Branstad, a political consultant and the oldest son of Iowa’s governor, disagrees. “What I like so much about Speaker Gingrich is, he has spent the time in Iowa. He has come to Iowa. When I was with the Republican Party, he came to do the fundraisers several times, on his own dime,” Branstad said. “At the Iowa Faith and Freedom dinner he was the first one there and the last one to leave…I am undecided, but I like the time and the respect that he’s given to Iowa and that’s probably what I’m going to vote on.”
The president of the Drake University College Republicans agrees that Gingrich’s efforts in Iowa over an extended period are paying dividends now. “You have to remember that Gingrich spent a lot of money in the campaign helping to oust the judges,” said Jordan Grant. “He’s done a lot to make peace with the evangelicals.”
Romney is often viewed as the most “electable” among the GOP candidates, but some members of the focus group strongly disagree with that narrative. They believe Romney’s religion will eventually cost him votes.
“There is a national pastor who is very much on the anti-Mitt Romney bandwagon,” Craig Bergman said. “A lot of the evangelicals believe God would give us four more years of Obama just for the opportunity to expose the cult of Mormon…There’s a thousand pastors ready to do that.”
Judd Saul agrees that Mitt Romney faces problems with evangelicals. “They won’t vote for a Mormon,” he said.
Polk County GOP Co-Chair Dave Funk believes Romney can defeat Barack Obama in the general election, but the Republican Party as a whole would be better off with another candidate. “The thing with Romney is, we don’t get coattails,” Funk said. “We don’t get the Senate with Romney at the top of the ticket. He’s able to grab enough independents and Democrat to beat Obama. However, we don’t turn out three million evangelicals to vote in every school board and local election.”
Romney has gained some favor with Isaiah McGee, an education consultant and former State Central Committee member. “I was a huge Sarah Palin fan and I was very-anti Romney guy four years ago, but I’m looking at Mitt Romney in a different light,” McGee said. “I would’ve never thought it in a million years I would be at this point in consideration…I still have a lot of issues and concerns out there, but I look at where we are right now in terms of economic situation and I feel that he is better prepared right now how to deal with, not only in terms of economics, on how to deal with the things we need to deal with on a worldwide level.”
The group seemed in consensus that the Texas congressman will do well in the Iowa Caucus, but not enough to compete for the GOP nomination. “Ron Paul is completely unviable,” said Craig Bergman, who worked on Paul’s 2008 campaign. “He’s got a ceiling. When you go on national TV and say, ‘I don’t care if Iran gets a nuclear bomb’, you’re done.”
Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum
We lump these three together because they are competing for many of the same voters, they are having similar problems gaining traction, and most of the focus group’s comments tied the candidates together.
“There’s a lot of Santorum supporters I know that say it’s the Rick & Rick show,” said Dave Funk. “Santorum is going be out of money on January 4. He doesn’t have the funding. You can’t dismiss a guy (Perry) who has $21 million bucks. What I’m hearing from his insiders is they’re viewing this as a four or five state battle.”
“He won’t get that far,” replied Isaiah McGee, about Perry’s chances in state’s beyond Iowa. Craig Bergman offered a dire prediction for Rick Perry’s Iowa campaign. “I would say he will probably come in dead last, other than Huntsman.”
Judd Saul, who is from the Waterloo/Cedar Falls area Michele Bachmann was born, says her verbal gaffes will cost her on January 3. “Santorum is going to have a better showing than Bachmann because she’s shot herself in the foot so many times. I know there are evangelicals moving behind the scenes to give Santorum to have a big push on January 3.”
Isaiah McGee is not as optimistic about the former Pennsylvania senator’s chances. “Why trust Santorum when I can go to Michele Bachmann? If there weren’t other options, I do think you would see a better consolidation behind Santorum.”
The Georgia businessman dropped out of the race a few days before our focus group met. Dave Funk offered a harsh assessment of Cain. “I had 12 meetings with Herman,” Funk said. “You meet certain people and the hair stands up on the back of your neck, and not in good way. He was one of those people. There wasn’t a lot of there, there. I don’t think the guy ever read the Constitution or understood it.”
Choosing a Candidate
Out of all the participants in the focus group, none of them were fully committed to a candidate. Three were leaning toward Gingrich and others were giving him strong consideration. However, no one in the group was prepared to declare their full support for anyone.
“This is such a wild caucus like I’ve never seen before where I’ve seen everybody go from the top to the bottom,” said Eric Branstad. “I’m leaning toward the Gingrich train but I don’t want to sign away anything yet because it’s so volatile.”
As for the ultimate goal of beating Barack Obama, the group was mixed on the GOP’s chances. Some believed anyone could take down the current president, while others stated it will be much more difficult than most people think. They also said they would not be surprised if there is another momentum shift prior to the Iowa Caucus, with yet another candidate rising to the top tier.
Photo by Dave Davidson, Prezography.com
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