Branstad calls Iowa race ‘wide open,’ encourages candidates to campaign in the state

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad today issued an open call to presidential candidates to come campaign in his state, calling the race for the first-in-the-nation caucus “wide open,” in the wake of Mike Huckabee’s decision not to run.

Huckabee won the Iowa caucus with 35 percent of the vote last year, which, Branstad pointed out, means “that 35 percent is up for grabs.”

“This is wide open,” said Branstad at the press conference, calling it “a great opportunity” for other candidates.

Several candidates have so far stayed out of Iowa, which is getting something of a reputation as a state that only a hardcore social conservative can win. After a disappointing loss to Huckabee in 2008, Romney has not yet made a trip to the state. Huntsman’s campaign has suggested that he will not bother to campaign there.

But Branstad said “it’s not too late” for these candidates to start campaigning in Iowa.

“The straw poll is 89 days away,” he said, referring to the influential Ames Straw Poll on August 13, and calling that plenty of time for a candidate to “catch fire.”

He also pointed out that the Ames Straw Poll is “not the end all and be all.” That, he said, is the Iowa Caucuses. But he insisted that the straw poll is important.

Branstad also predicted a “bigger turnout” than ever, citing “growing interest.”

The press conference was in many ways as much of a response to a column published today in the Des Moines Register (and also appeared in the New Hampshire Union Leader) by Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. The column contended that Iowa was losing clout in the election process by allowing more extreme elements of the Republican Party, especially social conservatives and evangelicals, to take up most of the political air space. He argued that it makes candidates think that only a social conservative has a chance in the state, causing some candidates to not campaign there at all.

“It’s hard to talk about real issues when three quarters of the audience wears tinfoil hats,” wrote Cullen.

Branstad said that he was not alarmed by the column.

“I think he’s out of touch,” he said.

“I’ve never seen a person here with a silver hat in my whole life,” he joked.

“I think we’ll prove him wrong,” he continued. “I know that Iowans are very intelligent, thoughtful and open minded.”

Branstad said his advice to candidates was to “go to all 99 counties, do town hall meetings, meet with people, and answer their questions,” emphasizing the necessity of retail politics in the state.

“People really want to look at your policy and your stands and what you’re going to do and focus on,” he said. The major issues he pointed to were “cleaning up the financial mess” and “jobs.”

“Sounds like a truce on social issues,” said one reporter. “You didn’t mention one social issue.”

“You know where I stand on social issues,” responded Branstad, pointing to his support of a bill in the legislature to ban late term abortions. “But,” he added, perhaps in a nod to potential candidate Mitch Daniels, “I also know that jobs and getting the financial mess straightened out is critical to the economic survival of our country.”