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Iowa Republicans Still Waiting For Superman (Or Woman)

From left, Steve Roberts, former state GOP chair; Mary Kramer, former Iowa Senate president, and John Stineman, GOP campaign consultant.
Liz Halloran
From left, Steve Roberts, former state GOP chair; Mary Kramer, former Iowa Senate president, and John Stineman, GOP campaign consultant.

Mitt Romney survived the candidates' debate. Michele Bachmann won the straw poll. Tim Pawlenty bowed out. And Rick Perry jumped in.

Over the past few days, the contest for the Republican presidential nomination got a serious restyling.

In the wake of the week that was, NPR sat down for lunch in Des Moines Sunday with three influential Iowa Republicans for a freewheeling conversation about what the developments mean for the party.


And about criticisms of the Iowa straw poll, which the state GOP began in 1979 and serves as a major fundraiser for the party – in addition to its traditional winnowing-of-the-field role.

Our guests:

Steve Roberts, a Des Moines lawyer, a former chairman of the state GOP, and former member of the Republican National Committee.

Mary Kramer, a former state senate president from Clive who chaired George W. Bush's Iowa presidential effort in 2000 and served as his ambassador to Barbados.


John Stineman, a veteran of many Republican campaigns who runs his own strategic communications firm in Des Moines.

Kramer has endorsed Romney.

What follows is a condensed and edited version of the conversation.

Pawlenty had a top-notch Iowa organization, early money, and a head start. But he could not catch on, in Iowa or anywhere else. What does that say about the Republican Party?

Roberts: Pawlenty, despite his qualifications and record, did not have the pizzazz. Unfortunately, competency is not always recognized. The Republican Party needs someone to excite them.

Stineman: The last presidential rock stars the party had were Reagan and George W. Bush. We're always in search of that rock star. Bachmann? I don't know yet. But it more likely will come from a Bachmann or a Perry than Romney.

Roberts: She can be a helluva speaker, and knows how to build anticipation. But you also have to deliver. For better or worse, she doesn't have the record of Romney, or Perry. She has to turn that minus into a plus and take a page from Herman Cain – that people haven't done the job in Washington.

Kramer: It's the showmanship that goes around the event. But what did Rick Santorum say at the debate? We need leadership, not showmanship? I'm impatient with people elected to represent who choose to be flame throwers instead of getting things done.

Stineman: There's plenty of opportunity for her to stumble. Perry also hasn't been tested yet. Romney has been vetted. As Republicans, we typically look for someone who has matriculated, who has gone along a certain course. We look at is a human resources director: who has the right skills. Now, I'm not convinced we're looking for someone with the right qualifications, or someone who can storm the castle. I don't think it's settled.

Kramer: That "this is my turn" stuff is not going to fly this time. There's more than Republicans who think we need to do something different. But can you get anything done in Washington besides light-bulb legislation? I've committed myself to someone who can run something. We are at a place where we have to have someone who can change the process.

Roberts: I want both. I do want someone who's exciting, to get the party fired up. And also somebody who can do the job. I don't know that we have that.

Stineman: Steve Roberts, holding out for a hero.

Roberts: As Casey Stengel once said, "Can't anyone here play this game?" Can anybody, in any party, make it work?

Kramer: A strong leader needs to be schizophrenic – willing to knock on thousands of doors to win, but also to lead. To find a little bitty piece of common ground, stand on it, and make it bigger. If you don't take that first step, it will be five years before you have the opportunity again.

What about Bachmann's prospects?

Kramer: She chose the 'storm the castle" role. I don't think she's going to play that role into a more complex campaign.

How about Perry?

Roberts: I never met him, just hear of him. I hear he's arrogant and more conservative than Bachmann.

Kramer: It will be who can go the farthest right.

Stineman: He's a true southern conservative who used to be a Democrat. He has some Tea Party support, and he has a record of accomplishment. But there's the whole Texas thing, the Bush fatigue. Male Texas politicians have a swagger that's either charming and compelling, or off-putting.

How will the new top three candidates go about winning the critical early 2012 caucus and primary states?

Kramer: It appears that Romney is really focused on New Hampshire, Perry on South Carolina, and now Bachmann is coming out of the Midwest.

Roberts: Perry will work hard in Iowa and focus on South Carolina. Bachmann will focus on Iowa and work hard in South Carolina.

Stineman: Romney can't afford for Perry to do well in Iowa and then go to South Carolina. He needs to disrupt that.

What do you make of the criticism of Iowa's outsized role in choosing presidents, with the straw poll and its presidential caucuses, traditionally the first contest in the presidential primary and caucus season?

Roberts: Traditions are born. You can't artificially create them. This year was larger than ever. It's a media event that the media loves to hate.

Kramer: The temptation on the part of the party to raise money at the straw poll is huge; it's low-hanging fruit. But I've already gotten four thank-you emails from Michele Bachmann. I think her organizational effort must have been dynamic, and that speaks well for her campaign. But does the organizational aspect of the straw poll overshadow a candidate's position on issues? It matters to me as a person who cares about issues. We'll see what she has when she leaves here.

Stineman: Anybody could make a big straw poll event happen. There's nothing keeping other states from having this. There's criticism that winnowing the field this early is not good. But if someone can't pull off a win at this point, what does that say?

Kramer: It also allows candidates who don't have a name, a base, or a network a moment to shine – or not.

Stineman: It allows you to see where the heart of the party lines up.

But does the Iowa GOP really reflect the heart of the Republican Party writ large?

Kramer: Do we know about that? How does the Iowa party line up with other state parties?

Stineman: Every state is different. But Iowa doesn't live in a bubble. If all candidates competed here, there would have been a robust turnout for all. Iowa can propel someone to the stage, but we're also looking at who's electable.

Roberts: I think social conservatives are stronger here in Iowa. I attribute that, for better or worse, to the leadership and organization they have. They've been at it for 25 years. They do it very well. So well that delegates to the national convention are picked by them.

Kramer: In 2000, I was president of the Iowa Senate and state chair of George W. Bush's presidential campaign. I couldn't get elected as a delegate to the national convention. We don't seem to be able to integrate ourselves well enough to find common ground.

Stineman: I'd like to challenge that a bit. The war between moderates and social conservatives has been going on for 40 years.

Roberts: But there are trends. When I came in, there were both Reagan and (moderate former Republican Gov. Robert) Ray people. We won a lot of elections working together. But in the 1980s the Reagan people got alarmed by the Christian Coalition.

Stineman: The fiscal and moral majority got pushed down, kept out. When they got in power, they did the same. So the fight continues. But I don't think it has much to do with who the caucus produces. I see three types of candidates that emerge: the brand name Republican like Bush; the more conservative or "outsider" candidate, like a Mike Huckabee; and the idea/leadership candidate, like a Steve Forbes. [Forbes finished second to Bush in the 2000 Iowa Republican caucus.] Forty-three percent of the time the state has voted for the brand-name Republican. You can't say that we're totally dominated by social conservatives.

So there's nothing amiss about Iowa's influence in choosing a president – from the straw poll to the caucuses?

Kramer: I think there are very good reasons Iowans are good choosers. We are willing to invest the time and energy in this. When I've asked some people who they're supporting, they say, "I don't know, I haven't met everyone yet."

Roberts: The message Iowa sent in choosing Obama resonated across the country – despite how it's turned out.

Stineman: And Bachmann was the first woman to win the straw poll. Regardless of whether or not you like the straw poll, you can't ignore it. Romney strategically avoided it, and has to react to it. Perry inserted himself in the story by changing the timeline of his announcement.

Roberts: Ask Karl Rove about the straw poll, and what it did in 1999 for George W. Bush, who participated reluctantly. [Bush won with 31 percent of the vote, toting up the highest vote total of all six straw polls while besting Steve Forbes, Elizabeth Dole, Gary Bauer, Pat Buchanan, and seven other candidates on the ballot.]

What about Obama?

Stineman: He'll be formidable, given the money he'll raise and his organization. But he's about two press conferences away from declaring malaise.

Kramer: Is there anybody else out there for him to blame? Better not have another press conference.

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