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.