GOP activists in Iowa divided on whether Palin can carry 2012 banner

Now that the 2010 midterm elections are over, tongues have already started wagging over who the potential Republican presidential candidates may be in 2012.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2011; 12:00 AM

WEST DES MOINES, IOWA - A group of Republican activists was sorting out the field of prospective 2012 presidential candidates on a cold night here recently when talk turned to Sarah Palin. In a state whose caucuses will kick off the nomination contest, no one stands clearly above the others, suggesting the competition here is as wide open as it is nationally.

But what these voters said about Palin might give the former Alaska governor pause as she considers whether to run for the White House next year. Christi Taylor, a physician, put it this way:

"As a woman, and from one strong woman to another, I want to like her and want to support her desperately. And yet, you just can't quite do it. I think she's a great inspirational person. I think she rallies the troops. I don't think she has what it takes to actually lead our country into a better economic future . . . And that pains me, because I want a strong woman candidate, and she is a strong woman candidate. But she's not the right strong woman candidate."

To better gauge the early impressions of the Republican field, the Post asked party chairs in two Iowa counties - suburban Dallas County, outside Des Moines, and rural Crawford County, about two hours to the northwest - to assemble local activists to share their views of the candidates. The groups, totaling 21 people, met on consecutive nights.

Economic concerns dominate the agenda for these activists. E.J. Infanger, who is self-employed, has two small children and worries about the impact of the debt and deficits on their lives. "I am deathly scared of the country that they're going to inherit," he said. "There are cultural issues I care deeply about, but the biggest thing is the debt."

The activists want a nominee who can deal with these fiscal and economic issues and who has the leadership skills to rally the country. "I want a candidate who can take basic conservative principles and sell them to the American people as common sense, because that's what they are," said Roger Sailer, a lawyer.

The two groups do not constitute a true representative sample of likely caucus attendees. But because Iowa activists pay attention to presidential campaigns more closely and earlier than voters in most other states, and because some prospective candidates are now making regular trips to Iowa, their comments provided valuable insight into the shape of the GOP field.

Right now, there is great uncertainty about who meets the qualifications Iowa activists are looking for. But while some strategists in the key state do not discount Palin's potential appeal, given her celebrity status and the passions she evokes, she may have to overcome doubts that some other candidates don't now face.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R), who has not endorsed anyone, said that former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is "probably" the front-runner in Iowa, "based on the fact that he carried the state" in 2008. But he said there's been little sign of Huckabee so far and noted that he has "not been a great fundraiser."

In the two groups assembled by the Post, Huckabee is still well liked. He was described as "jovial" and "down to earth," a good communicator with a sense of humor. "Whether you agree or disagree with what he has to say, he always has that feel that he's one of you," said Tyler DeHaan, who works in the investment business.

Almost every person in the suburban Des Moines group offered positive words for Huckabee until Becky Ervin, who works in human resources, said, "I love the guy, but he's not tough enough." That prompted some revisionism around the room.

One person question his toughness to handle national security issues and called him "a pleaser." Another cited his record of allowing the release of convicted felons in Arkansas. Another questioned whether he can expand beyond his Christian conservative base to become a competitive candidate in a general election.

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