Iowa's popular Gov. Terry Branstad hasn't endorsed any of the Republican presidential candidates crisscrossing his state yet.
Which means he can at least claim to be above the intramural GOP fray scheduled to end in a few weeks when his state's Republican voters attend caucuses to choose their preference for their party's White House nominee.
"So I'm reserving judgment," Branstad told All Things Considered co-host Melissa Block Thursday. "I think it's a wide open race. And we'll have to see what happens."
Still, Branstad will eventually be endorsing someone after the Jan. 3 caucuses. As he told Melissa : "I want to work to help unite the party behind the winner of the nomination process."
So he's been keeping close tabs on the contest as you'd expect and shared with Melissa some of his observations, which tended to mirror much of the conventional wisdom.
Asked what to make of Republican voters gyrating from one candidate to another over the months, Branstad said:
"I think it says people are looking for the perfect candidate. And I think they've now come to the realization there isn't such a thing as the perfect candidate. You need to choose the one you think is the best and has the best plan and vision to restore fiscal integrity in this country and also attract private sector investment and jobs."
For now, many Iowa Republicans are saying that former House speaker Newt Gingrich is the best candidate.
Branstad said he thought the former speaker benefited from his strong debate performances following his campaign's implosion earlier this year.
"I think his campaign got off to a bad start because of his criticism of Cong. Paul Ryan. A lot of people thought that was very unfair. Then he took this long vacation. So his campaign got off to a really bad start.
"But he's performed very well in the debates. So I believe the debates have been very helpful to him.
"People see him as an idea person. But there's also some concern about some of the baggage he has from previous things that have happened. So I think people are giving him another look. they like some of his ideas. but they're also looking for the one they think has the best chance to win in the long run."
The baggage included not just Gingrich's three marriages but his occasional heresies against Republican orthodoxy.
"Global warming is one, where he was with Nancy Pelosi, (the leader of House Democrats.) He now acknowledges that was one of the stupidest things he ever did. Pelosi is probably one of the most unpopular Democrats, even more unpopular than President Obama. so teaming up with her was not a good idea."
Mitt Romney mostly avoided Iowa for much of 2011, a reaction to doing poorly there in the 2008 Iowa caucuses after making a major commitment of resources.
But when Gingrich rose to claim frontrunner status in national and state polls (except for New Hampshire) Romney was forced to change strategy, putting more emphasis on Iowa in an effort to slow Gingrich's momentum.
"He has in the last couple of weeks really put a lot more effort here. He's opened a campaign office. He has a small staff but a number of volunteers and some very significant people helping him. Former Gov Bob Ray, Mary Kramer who was a former president of the (Iowa) senate and was an ambassador.
"So he has people like that that are working hard for him. And I know he has more visits here planned between now and the caucus. so I think he's trying to make up for lost time here. And we'll have to see how effective that is."
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has been doing especially well in polls of likely Iowa Republican caucus goers. Branstad said a lot of Paul's success comes from the similarity between his fiscal views and those of many Iowa conservatives.
"I think one of the things that really has caused Ron Paul to have a lot of appeal is that he has consistently pointed out the financial calamity of deficit spending and the mismagement, that's the number one issue. So i think because he's had a consistent record there and he's been talking about that for a long time and has the courage to vote against a lot of that spending he's gained some real respect.
"There is, however, among many people concern about his foreign policy position, especially involving places like Iran. A lot of us are concerned that he takes an isolationst or a naive approach to some real threats in the world."
Still, Branstad said Paul's Iowa success to date stems not just from his fiscal views but his organization.
"That could be very helpful. As I travel the state, I see more yard signs, he's got more bumper stickers, he's got a strong organization and a lot of young people.
"Now, caucuses are Jan 3rd during the Christmas holidays. So I'm not sure all these college students will be back at their campuses. So that could have some impact."
As for the candidates who have placed much emphasis on Iowa but have failed to break into the top tier in the Iowa polls, like Rep. Michele Bachmann of neighboring Minnesota and Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, Branstad said he wasn't writing them off.
"It's not over till it's over. The only poll that really counts is the one they take on caucus night. I think Santorum may surprise some people.
"Michele Bachmann did very well here in the straw polll. I think she's got an organization and may turn out some people. They may do much better than some of the surveys would indicate."
Branstad somehow failed to mention his fellow Republican governor in the race, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
True, Michele didn't ask him directly about the Texas governor. But Branstad didn't make any mention of him either. We probably shouldn't read too much into that since it was likely just an oversight.
Nor did he mention Jon Huntsman Jr., though the former Utah governor let it be known early that he would be focusing on New Hampshire, not Iowa.
Melissa asked Branstad about some Iowans' complaints that the candidates this time around have been doing less retail politicking throughout the state, giving voters less of an opportunity to size up the would-be nominees in person. Branstad had a different take.
"I think we need to recognize every campaign is different. There's been a lot of social media. There've been a lot more debates than ever before. But personal contact is still important. And listen, I'm just very pleased that we have so much time and atention being spent in Iowa. And I'm really pleased all of the candidates recognize this is a real contest."
Not surprisingly, Branstad took exception to the notion that a relatively small, homogenous group of Iowans shouldn't play such an outsized role in the nominating process with their first-in-the-nation status. Iowans deserve their role because of how seriously they take their job, he said.
"You got to remember this is Jan 3rd. It's going to be at night. It's likely to be cold. Who knows what the weather is going to be like? You can't vote absentee ballots. You've got to go to where your caucus is held.
"So these are people that really care and really want to have an impact and i think that says something about Iowan's interests in really changing the direction of this country and choosing the best possible leader for America."
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