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Bruce Braley’s bad week

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This was not the coming out party Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) envisioned.

After more than a year of running a textbook campaign for U.S. Senate with an emphasis on fundraising and a gradual introduction to voters, Braley was suddenly hamstrung by comments seen as insulting to farmers and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). The result of Braley's gaffe is a sped-up campaign in which he has been thrust into the spotlight sooner than his team expected.

"I think it will accelerate the competitiveness" of the race, acknowledged Braley campaign adviser Jeff Link.

For months, the combination of a weak Republican field without a standard bearer and Braley's steady hand made a GOP upset in a must-win state for Democrats look unlikely. But Braley's remark has breathed new life into GOP efforts to claim Iowa, which could be pivotal to Republican efforts to win back the Senate.

To many Republicans, Braley's gaffe was not a surprise. The Democratic congressman's mouth has gotten him into trouble before, most recently during last year's government shutdown. Braley said he was pleased the House gym had stayed open but noted, "There's no towel service, we're doing our own laundry down there," prompting criticism.

"Bruce Braley is doing something Republicans have known and have been screaming about at the top of our lungs for years. He is a deeply flawed candidate and a bad campaigner," said Tim Albrecht, a former aide to Gov. Terry Branstad (R) whose firm has done work for state Sen. Joni Ernst (R), one of Braley's opponents.

University of Iowa political scientist Tim Hagle, who has been a member of the Johnson County Republican Central Committee, said, "It does start to show a bit of a pattern."

But Braley, 56, is exactly who Democrats wanted in the race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin's seat. A capable fundraiser, the former trial lawyer jumped in early last year and cleared the field. He's expected to coast to the Democratic nomination with no resistance and has built an impressive war chest: At the end of 2013, Braley had more than $2.6 million in his campaign account.

Fundraising, though, is what tripped him up. The Republican group America Rising last week posted footage online of Braley at a private fundraiser in Texas earlier this year telling attendees that if he does not win, "You might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee." The reference was to Grassley, the most popular politician in the state.

Braley swiftly apologized for the comment, which has been compared to Mitt Romney's infamous "47 percent" remark. But the story didn't die. A Braley press release misspelled farm terms. And Braley's campaign said he knew he was being recorded.

Republicans pounced. A conservative group went up with a $250,000 ad buy highlighting the comment. Businessman Mark Jacobs, another Republican challenging Braley, also aired a commercial on the remark. Democrats, meanwhile, caution that it is only April and that Republicans risk dampening the impact of Braley's comment by focusing so much energy in it now.

"It starts to lose impact if it's repeated too many times," said Polk County Democratic Party Chairman Tom Henderson.

Senate Republicans need to pick up six seats to win back the majority. There are a handful of more favorable opportunities for Republicans to make gains, but strategists on both sides have kept a watchful eye on Iowa, which could be pivotal. Well-known political forecaster Nate Silver believes Braley's remark makes Iowa a more plausible GOP pickup opportunity.

The agriculture industry is a big part of the economy and cultural identity of Iowa, making Braley's comment especially jarring. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, Iowa was one of the top three states in number of farms, agricultural sales, crops sales and livestock sales.

Braley's team says they are not taking his misstep lightly, but they don't believe it will change the trajectory of the race. Polling has shown Braley leading Ernst and Jacobs -- viewed as the leading GOP contenders -- by double digits.

But outside his northeastern Iowa district, Braley is not well-known. A recent survey showed that 46 percent of Iowa voters didn't know enough about Braley to hold an opinion of him. With Republicans up on the air and local media devoting lots of coverage to his gaffe, there is a risk of him being defined in an unflattering way.

Still, Braley has not hit the airwaves with an introductory TV ad yet. Allied groups have been boosting him on the air, but Braley still hasn't gone up. Some Republicans questioned the wisdom of that decision. Braley's campaign says it intends to go up later in the year.

"Well, we might. It's an option that we are discussing," said Link when asked about the possibility of an ad in the near future. "We've had a plan in place to introduce Bruce either before or around the June primary."

Braley's campaign notes that he's been to all 99 counties -- known in Iowa as the "Full Grassley" -- and has been actively campaigning during the last year. His advisers say they always expected a tough race and that Braley's "farmer" remark does not change the overall strategy the campaign has deployed.

"We built a plan to prepare for a very competitive, very close race. We've been executing on that plan for the last 14 months," said Link.

The fluid Republican field could become increasingly important if Braley's image suffers as a result of his line about Grassley. "It makes the Republican primary more relevant," said Doug Gross, a Republican strategist supporting Jacobs.

So far, no one's been able to break away from the GOP pack. Ernst hasn't raised as much money as many Republicans anticipated and Democrats are eager to paint Jacobs as another Mitt Romney. If no Republican gets more than 35 percent of the vote in the primary, a convention will decide the winner, stretching out the nomination process.

Most of Iowa's political universe is in wait-and-see mode right now. They are waiting to see if Braley goes off-script again. They are waiting to see if Republicans seize the moment or not. And they are waiting for polling that may show whether or not this was a pivotal moment.

"This may be a defining moment if it is in fact percolating out to the non-party votes and the folks who are not that attuned to the campaign yet," said Hagle.

Updated at 2:27 p.m.