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In Iowa’s largely empty GOP field, Tim Pawlenty is first to make inroads

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Sioux Center, Iowa — The 2012 presidential campaign is already underway here, quietly though not coyly. The coy get punished in Sioux County as too smooth, too big for their britches. This is a place that favors candidates who speak plainly, signal their intentions early and demonstrate an appreciation for northwestern Iowa’s immutable rhythms. This is the season when the dreamers with swelling White House ambitions are supposed to call Sioux Republican officials like Randy Feenstra.

Amid Sioux County’s corn and soybean fields, laid with fresh manure, sits the main drag of the quiet little town of Hull and the small business office of Feenstra, a state senator who has an outsize political importance every four years. The photos on the walls serve as testaments to his soldier role in Republican politics, pictures of him alongside George W. Bush and other party titans. “You kind of expect all that here,” Feenstra said, nonchalantly.

What surprises Feenstra is that his phone hasn’t been ringing much. Some of the Republican presidential dreamers are waiting, he suspects; others can’t decide whether they want to contest Iowa. As Feenstra looks on with puzzlement at those not calling, he finds himself gravitating toward the one likely candidate who is, the candidate who started courting Feenstra and other Sioux GOP officials a full year ago, the one off to a noticeably quick start here — former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.

A Pawlenty aide phoned Feenstra early in 2010, asking whether his boss could do anything for him. It was one of many calls Pawlenty and his aides made to Sioux County party operatives and officials. What has happened since offers a window not only to Pawlenty’s strategy but also to the heart of Sioux — what stirs its political soldiers, what its residents expect to hear, and how Pawlenty, in hitting the resonant chords, has visibly bolstered his chances even before formally declaring his candidacy.

Pawlenty’s wooing of Iowans is a classic approach for a politician in his position — an established contender but without the national profile of Sarah Palin or the money of Mitt Romney. Jimmy Carter was the first to win Iowa this way, and seemingly every four years since, someone tries it anew, some to great effect and some to hardly any at all. The question this time is whether it will pay off for Pawlenty, with a win in the state’s February caucus or with a strong-enough second- or third-place showing to catapult a relative unknown to the nomination.

In the early going, Pawlenty has started to win over a number of influential officials. Local college professor Tim Rylaarsdam, a former Sioux County Republican chairman, says he feels closer to supporting Pawlenty than to anyone else. Another past county party chairman says several influential local Republicans are leaning toward Pawlenty. The current county party chair says that if forced to choose today, no one would rank above Pawlenty.

But all this qualified praise for Pawlenty betrays a muted leeriness: Few in Sioux have been deeply turned on by anyone, including him. Potential backers are “leaning” his way, or “getting close.” In a largely empty field, Pawlenty has made an impression, but that’s all for now.

The hesitance reflects the Republican mind-set throughout Iowa and the rest of the country. National polls show that no one among the party’s prospective candidates has yet to excite many hearts. Some local leaders are fishing about for someone fresh to attach their hopes to. Nick Lantinga, a former Sioux County Republican chairman, for instance, is trying to persuade friends to consider launching a campaign effort for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, even though Christie has ruled out a run.

“I’ve been hearing good things about Pawlenty, but I’ve been very impressed by Christie,” said Lantinga, who serves as executive director of an international organization that promotes Christian higher education. He also serves as the board president for a local Christian school.

Nonetheless, Lantinga and Feenstra, who know of surveys showing Pawlenty polling in single digits, appreciate what they regard as the Minnesotan’s leadership skills and his dogged attentiveness to Iowa, qualities they think might provide the spark for a Pawlenty surge. And yet neither is sure.

Making inroads

Feenstra, running last year for the state Senate, enthusiastically responded yes to the Pawlenty aide’s suggestion of help: It would be nice, he said, if T-Paw could speak on Feenstra’s behalf at Dordt College, a Christian school in Sioux Center where he would be hosting a fundraiser before a modest crowd of about 100 Iowans.

Pawlenty arrived in Sioux County, answered questions at a private roundtable session with select Republicans, shook every hand and delivered a short talk at Dordt in which he praised Feenstra while emphasizing his own positions on social issues, including his stances against abortion and same-sex marriage. Feenstra left impressed and grateful.

“Pawlenty made a lot of inroads with key people in this area — party people, professors, businessmen, doctors, people with clout,” Feenstra said. “He didn’t have the glitz or glamour of Mitt Romney. But he came off as a common person like [Mike] Huckabee — you believed him, you could relate to him. He had the touch. . . . And he was the only one coming out this way. He was smart to jump in early. No one has ever done well here when he waited and waited.”

Not long afterward, Pawlenty called and asked Feenstra for his support, the first of several calls to Feenstra over the next several months. Feenstra told Pawlenty that he was leaning his way but that he could not endorse him without first learning about the plans of his friend Sen. John Thune of South Dakota.

In February, after Thune announced that he would not be running and Pawlenty made another speech at Dordt College, Feenstra received another call from his suitor. Feenstra felt himself on the brink of offering an endorsement, flattered by Pawlenty’s attention, appreciative of his earlier help. “I’m getting close,” he told Pawlenty.

Now, on a spring afternoon, Feenstra was riding out of Hull in his dusty tan Oldsmobile with its 113,000 miles on it, whizzing alongside the corn and soybean fields, and talking Sioux politics, which he saw as a template for Republican politics throughout the state. “You better know what matters here if you’re running for something,” he said. He pointed at an enormous structure through which hundreds of squatty blurry animals can be seen roaming in a wave. “Hog confinements,” he said brightly. “Produce manure — fantastic manure. Your productivity for corn jumps to 200 bushels an acre with it.”

Past the magic manure, Feenstra remembered something else about the first of Pawlenty’s appearances at Dordt. “He talked some about ag. He talked about what people wanted to hear — people don’t want you to come here and talk on and on about Libya.”

It was noon on a Friday, and Feenstra and a local state representative were scheduled to conduct a joint lunchtime forum with about a dozen constituents just outside of Sioux County.

Afterward, a farmer named Mike Ver Steeg stayed behind for a couple of minutes to chat. He wore jeans, a dusty gray T-shirt and the distracted look of a man thinking about the hogs he needed to tend to.

Ver Steeg wondered how seriously the would-be presidents regarded people such as him and whether they underestimated Iowans’ political intensity.

“We’re kind of quiet sometimes, but our values determine everything,” he said. “I want a good Christian to be president.”

It is a familiar phrase around northwestern Iowa, where an estimated 99 percent-plus of the religious are Christian. Diversity, as one observer remarked with a smile, is “one of those Eastern words.” Romney’s Mormonism posed a problem for him in Sioux County during 2008. Local Republican activists recall friends and family members openly voicing misgivings, dismissing Mormonism as too “exotic” and sometimes “un-Christian.”

“His being a Mormon last time was a bigger thing than I’d anticipated,” said Orange City Council member Mick Snieder, Romney’s 2008 Sioux County chairman. He hasn’t received a call in the past year from anyone in the Romney organization, leading him to suspect that Romney might not contest Iowa in a serious way in 2012. “His religion is probably still an issue here. For someone looking for a conservative, evangelical Christian, he’s not a fit.”

In this regard, too, Pawlenty has connected early. “He is comfortable discussing his Christianity and values,” Feenstra said. “If I had to do it today, I’d endorse Pawlenty — he is very comfortable with the same things I’m comfortable with. It’s just like I told him. I’m very, very close.”

Close, but not there. Feenstra hoped to hear from other possible candidates, maybe Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. He regarded other aspirants with less interest. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Romney — all had various shortcomings, he said. And besides, they hadn’t been around here anytime recently.

That left Pawlenty, to whom he was grateful. “Yeah, probably going to be Pawlenty,” he said. “Almost there with him.” He paused, nodded and looked out the window at hogs. A long moment passed. “But I just would like to see one or two of the others before then. But Pawlenty has done everything I need. Probably going to be Pawlenty, getting there. He has done a lot to earn it. Soon. Probably.”

‘Iowa-nice’

While Feenstra moved ever closer to Pawlenty, Nick Lantinga keeps gravitating toward Christie. “Christie is great on spending cuts,” he said, “but he does it through the perspective of saving people’s pensions and helping schools – it’s not just cuts for the sake of cuts. And he’s strong on the social issues.”

In 1997, the Michigan-bred Lantinga arrived with his family in Sioux County, after a stint in graduate school in Chicago, and soon found that his no-nonsense style was too hot for Sioux. “Someone told me I had to bring it down a notch,” he said. “In Iowa, it’s not enough for a candidate to be good on the issues; people are also looking for someone easygoing, someone they’re comfortable with.”

“Iowa-nice,” one of Lantinga’s friends calls it.

Viewing Christie as ideal on the issues and amiable enough for Iowa, Lantinga had begun floating the governor’s name to about 10 Republican activists around Sioux Center, the biggest city in the county.

Lantinga sat down in a coffee shop with Ralph Goemaat, one of Lantinga’s former precinct captains. Goemaat had supported Huckabee in ’08, but now he smilingly described himself as “one of those sick-and-tired people” willing to consider someone new.

“What about Chris Christie?” Lantinga asked him.

Goemaat knew the name. “I hear some good things,” he said, “but the rap on him is social issues.”

Lantinga smiled and said: “He’s very pro-life. I think he might shake things up.”

Goemaat listened to his friend’s pitch for a while before weighing in. “He’s a committed fiscal conservative — okay, he’s good there,” Goemaat said. “But I still have questions about the other parts.” His shrug said that Christie didn’t do it for him.

The talk turned to Gingrich and his intellect, and then to Gingrich’s two divorces. “His track record on marriage isn’t all that good,” Goemaat said. “Forgiveness is important, but he carries a lot of baggage.”

Lantinga raised his finger and grinned, having just remembered something. “I heard that [Kentucky Sen.] Rand Paul said that Gingrich has more positions on Libya than wives.”

The two men laughed. Gingrich was out for them.

Then, unbidden, Goemaat mentioned Pawlenty as someone seemingly gaining traction. Goemaat had never considered Pawlenty before hearing his speech in February at Dordt, where about 250 spectators gathered — the candidate’s biggest crowd yet in Sioux County. “I went in there not thinking seriously about him at all,” Goemaat said.

Pawlenty’s speech emphasized social-conservative themes that impressed Goemaat, who ticked off the points: “Foundation of biblical teachings; right-to-life; one-man, one-woman marriage; and that our rights come first from God, not from government.”

Goemaat turned to Lantinga and assessed Pawlenty’s performance. “He wasn’t as charismatic as some others, but he’s a likable dude,” Goemaat said. “He’s now somebody I have to give a second look to, even if he has a long ways to go with me.”

That same day, Lantinga headed toward Orange City, where he walked into the office of the current Sioux County Republican chairman, Mark Lundberg, an investment counselor.

Lundberg talked with Lantinga for a while about some of the possible candidates, doing his best to project neutrality, mixing any doses of skepticism with lavish praise.

Gingrich is “brilliant,” Lundberg said, but a “tough sell for social conservatives because of his personal life.” Huckabee has the resources and reputation, but no one knows whether he’ll run. Palin would “play fine here,” but “the question is whether that leads to votes, whether she has sufficient support.” Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann “has all the right conservative credentials. But if Palin ran, those two would probably split the same peeps.” Romney “has a lot of good traits. But I don’t know if he’ll play in Iowa this time.”

Lundberg said he didn’t want to endorse anyone for a while. But then, choosing his words carefully, he said, “If I had to pick right now today, I’d lean as much toward Pawlenty as anybody in the race.”

Lundberg mulled that over. “He’s been here to the county three times already,” he said. “I met with him and five or six others over at the Holiday Inn. Talks well about economic development. What he said about social values was good. He has all the tools. . . . I feel like I’ve gotten to know him pretty well. And you’re not going to support anyone you haven’t met and spent time with here.”

That analysis serves as both an invitation and a warning to the rest of the field. “You don’t want to move too late here,” Lundberg added. Priding himself on detecting political tremors before they become seismic events, Lundberg had carefully taken note of a recent Iowa rumbling. Eric Woolson, Huckabee’s 2008 Iowa campaign manager, had publicly declared a willingness to work for Pawlenty. Soon, Woolson signed on to be a senior adviser to Pawlenty, in charge of his Iowa communications effort.

“Getting Eric is really key at this point,” said Lundberg, who viewed Woolson’s decision as a signal that several other notable Iowa Republicans thought they saw a winner in Pawlenty. “Eric basically is a hired gun. So if he wants to come in with Pawlenty, it’s because he thinks he sees something good happening.”

Sensing that Christie won’t run, Lantinga said he would consider Pawlenty, Huckabee and Daniels. “Pawlenty isn’t just a pocketbook conservative,” Lantinga said. “He has demonstrated he understands the important social values. So maybe.”

And that’s how it happens here. Republican voters and kingmakers alike assume they will be aggressively courted by the would-be presidents, wooed until they are wowed. Almost by default, one candidate roaming this county is on the brink of having executed an early seduction. Sioux needs attention. Sioux likes a steady suitor.

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