By Hannah Hess | IowaPolitics.com
IOWA CITY — Candidates with a “governor” title in front of their name stand to gain the most support from Iowa lawmakers, now that former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has left the presidential race.
Pawlenty, who pulled the plug on his Republican campaign Sunday after a third-place finish in the Ames Straw Poll, had more support from state legislators than any of his competitors — 10 of the 24 Iowa Republican legislators who endorsed a 2012 candidate chose him.
Six backed Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, three for Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, two for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, two for former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and one for former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.
“I just think it’s important to have some governing experience,” said state Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, who endorsed Pawlenty. “It’s important to understand budgeting, and to understand what it means to work with a lot of different agencies.”
Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman fit the bill. But former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie could lengthen that list if they jump into the campaign, as some strategists have speculated.
Feenstra said he has started looking at the record of Perry, who made his first campaign visit to Iowa on Sunday. However, Feenstra said he will be waiting about a month before making an official decision.
With three terms under his belt, Perry is the nation’s longest-serving governor and until recently was chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
State Rep. Linda Miller, R-Bettendorf, said she supported Romney in 2008 and he still ranks at the top of her choices, now that Pawlenty is out. Miller said executive experience impresses her, but she will take time to review the other campaigns before making a choice.
Pawlenty’s “Results not Rhetoric” campaign theme made his experience as governor the primary bullet point on his resume. In contrast, Romney emphasizes his private-sector experience as proof that he is a champion for businesses. He made his fortune as a venture capitalist.
Miller said Romney has a “thoughtful approach” to the issues that she appreciates.
Rival campaigns, anxious for support from the politicians who hold sway with their constituents, contacted Feenstra and Miller shortly after Pawlenty’s withdrawal.
Within 24 hours of Pawlenty’s exit, Feenstra said he received a phone call from Santorum, and other campaigns followed suit. Miller confirmed the same, but declined to identify which candidates were reaching out for her support.
State Rep. Steve Lukan, R-New Vienna, who endorsed Pawlenty in late July, said other campaigns have not contacted him, but he knows what he’s looking for.
“I really think we need somebody with executive experience, which really means a governor,” Lukan said.
He said he will wait until the field is more settled to make another selection.
“It’s a very good thing for the party to have a very diverse field and a really hard-fought nomination battle because it really tempers whoever wins,” Lukan said, adding that he had maintained faith after the straw poll that Pawlenty could have picked up steam and made a strong showing in the Iowa caucus.
Agreeing with this assessment, state Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, said the time between now and the Feb. 6 caucuses are a “political eternity,” and he was not in a rush to make a new endorsement.
Staff from other campaigns have been chatting up Baltimore, but he said pressure is low, giving him time to analyze the records and accomplishments of the other candidates.
All five state lawmakers who spoke to IowaPolitics.com agreed that the field is still fluid enough for more presidential candidates to enter.
“I’m not going to be so quick to jump on board with someone else’s campaign,” said state Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley. “I’m still kicking the tires right now.”
A number of presidential candidates have been bidding for the help of former Republican gubernatorial candidate Christian Fong, of Cedar Rapids, who was one of Pawlenty’s Iowa campaign co-chairmen along with Ames businessman Roger Underwood, former Iowa GOP co-chairman Jim Kurtenbach and former State Auditor Richard Johnson.
“Pawlenty’s team was widely acknowledged,” Fong said. “We worked well together.”
But Fong is waiting for the field to be finalized before joining another campaign. Ultimately, he said he will work for the candidate who can beat President Barack Obama “and who can do so while leading a broadly conservative coalition.”
Republican strategist Eric Woolson, who directed communications for the Pawlenty campaign in Iowa, declined to comment Thursday on his plans for the remainder of the 2012 campaign season, or whether he’s been approached by other presidential hopefuls.
“Campaigns have a responsibility to connect with voters, and we just didn’t make that connection,” said Woolson, who was the campaign manager for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s winning 2008 Iowa caucus campaign.
Republican National Committeeman Steve Scheffler said Pawlenty sent the right message, but had trouble connecting with voters because of his laid-back nature.
At an appearance in July at the Wakonda Club in Des Moines, Iowans gave Pawlenty plenty of advice on how he could improve in the polls, from appearing stronger to focusing less on religion. But Pawlenty told IowaPolitics.com that he had to be himself and “if you try to ‘phony it up,’ that just comes across as being a phony.” He also said he took heart in the fact that “the loudest or most entertaining candidate usually doesn’t win.”
“He was a great candidate,” Scheffler said. “His stance on issues mirrored that of Iowa Republicans and caucus-goers in general, but I think people were looking for a candidate who sounded more aggressive towards taking on Obama.”
While Pawlenty scored chuckles on the campaign trail by knocking the president’s four years in the U.S. Senate as “just long enough to have a cup of coffee before it got cold,” anti-Obama momentum seems to surge through Bachmann’s crowds when she works them into a “one-term president” chant.
Perry is also a passionate speaker who has told Iowans they should be “indignant” about the direction Obama has taken the country. In his speeches, the Texas governor works fiery rhetoric into a tirade against the president.
Scheffler predicted that Perry or Bachmann, the winner of the Ames Straw Poll, would pick up Pawlenty’s followers.
Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford said Pawlenty’s attempts to unify the Republican establishment with the more populist conservative sect of the electorate left the campaign sending a “mixed message that didn’t satisfy anyone.”
Pawlenty placed a distant third at the Ames Straw Poll with less than half the votes as Bachmann or Paul. He received 2,293 votes, or 13.6 percent of the 16,892 votes cast.