“Only lost cause is Cruz”: Which GOP candidates shined (or flopped) in Iowa this weekend

At Iowa's "Ag Summit" on Saturday, Jeb Bush had an auspicious debut, while Dems skipped town and others struck out

Published March 9, 2015 3:29PM (EDT)

Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker                      (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Rebecca Cook/Sara Stathas)
Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Rebecca Cook/Sara Stathas)

There’s a new player in the game at the Iowa caucuses this season, and the competition has just been elevated. That new player is Jeb Bush, and his debut at Saturday’s Iowa Agriculture Summit in Des Moines could be a game changer -- for both Republicans and Democrats.

Even though they were invited, Democrats were missing in action at the Summit. Republican hopefuls took full advantage of the opportunity to appeal to Iowa’s core industry, as entrepreneur and President of the Iowa Board of Regents Bruce Rastetter sat down with each candidate in turn to talk about ag policy as it relates to national security.

Instead of listening to candidates give canned stump speeches, Rastetter sat down with them and asked questions for about 20 minutes about important issues in mainstream contemporary agriculture. He posed questions about immigration, trade policies, trade with Cuba, the safety and security of our food supply, genetically modified foods, crop insurance, the renewable fuel standard, and wind energy.

In addition to Bush, the attendees were Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, George Pataki, Rick Santorum, and Scott Walker.

Why did Bush stand out? In part because he immediately followed Christie and Huckabee. The contrast was stunning. The professor had entered the room with the undergrads. Bush was analytical and thoughtful. He drew from his own experience to address the questions, and came across as a pragmatic problem solver rather than a know-it-all. Where  several other candidates used generalized disdain for Obama and Democratic policies as a convenient emotional crutch to move audiences, Bush didn’t.

This analysis really isn’t fair to Christie -- because he did OK. He was just followed by someone who was more prepared. Huckabee is a different matter, but more about that later.

Perry and Pataki used their experience as farmers to their advantage, clearly showing they understand the major issues. Pataki’s repeated reference to his 400+ acre farm wasn’t all that impressive to an audience who would call that a “hobby farm” or “garden.”

Polls show Walker in the lead, and he did nothing that would drop him from that spot. He wowed the audience at the Iowa Freedom Summit, making him the early frontrunner. Santorum is another Iowa favorite, and in a session with the media after he spoke with Rastetter, he downplayed his caucus victory in 2012, saying he respected the right of Iowa caucus goers to evaluate all of the candidates in the current race. Lindsey Graham was right at home, handled the questions adeptly, and drew laughter and applause. He wandered into the topic of national infrastructure repair, and outlined a much needed program that would revitalize our nation’s ports and waterways. It sounded great until I realized that he probably couldn’t get even a handful of his own party members to vote for it.

The worst line of the day? That came from Pastor Huckabee, and I quote: “What do we do to stem the tide of people who are rushing over (the border) because they’ve heard that there is a bowl of food just across the border...”

The irony here is palpable. And while I don’t want to quote Bible verses, or evoke the cliche “What would Jesus do?” every pastor I know would say “feed them.” Huckabee may be fading into irrelevance. His folksy sayings, homilies, and wit only go so far in a crowded field of candidates with solid ideas. Fresh when he won the 2008 caucuses, his shelf life may be over.

The media has made much of the potential land mine of the renewable fuel standard at the summit, and for good reason. In 2012, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, who supported it, took first and second in the caucuses. Rick Perry, who opposed it, took fifth. Perry has company this year. Most notably, Ted Cruz. Cruz was clear in his opposition, but in a brilliant piece of oratory had his audience applaud him after he expressed his opposition, as he continued to speak, praising honesty as a virtue not enough candidates have. Lesson to be learned? Never stop talking until you give your audience a line they can applaud.

Jeb Bush wants the market to decide if ethanol should continue to be used as a fuel supplement. He said that the 2007 law worked, and suggested that the ethanol mandate should be phased out, perhaps by 2022.  Will this hurt Bush in Iowa? I don’t think so, although other media do. Shortly after Bush said it, CBS news tweeted: “Has Jeb Bush already alienated Iowa? http://cbsn.ws/1GtNobl .“

In general, there are two ways to speak to Iowa farmers and make them happy. The first is to tell them what they want to hear. Most of the speakers at the summit did exactly that. The second way is to tell them what they already know, but don’t like to hear. Iowa farmers know that what Bush said is the truth -- they just don’t want to hear it. The law does expire in 2022. That’s a fact. And it won’t alienate Iowa farmers and the ag industry if they go to what Bush actually said, and not rely exclusively on media reports. Walker also supported a phase out.

Some candidates took advantage of facing a media scrum after they came offstage. Most notably, Ted Cruz. Cruz is a master. A media darling, he worked the press mob around him, giving them what most of them wanted, and then took to the crowd, getting his photo taken with whoever wanted it, consoling at least one weeping woman, his arm around her. The media surrounded the tearful embrace, cameras rolling, microphones hovering. I presume that Cruz’s concern was sincere, but he effortlessly controlled the moment, and as I watched, it was as though he were at once not only a fine actor in a scripted scene, but also the director and cinematographer of a Disney tear-jerker in which he was center stage.

What did the farmers and ag industry players think of the Summit?

Iowa is a relatively small place. Turns out one of the women who had her photo taken with Cruz and I have a mutual friend. She teared up as she showed me the photo on the screen of her phone.  I asked her why she wanted her photo taken with Cruz.

“I just love him!” she said. “I love his story. What a story! He’s smart, articulate, succinct, and a statesman. Right now we need a statesman.”

It just so happens that a farmer from Story County and I played football across from each other on opposing teams back in the day. “Don’t think we could do it today, could we!” he laughed, patting his tummy and looking at mine.

“Who do you like?” I asked.

“Too early,” he said. “I lean Republican, but W. soured me on Republicans. Threw money away. About ruined the economy. Don’t want another Bush or Clinton. We’ll see...”

We spoke again during a break. “And where are the Democrats?” he said. “They were invited. I wanted to hear what they had to say!  What did they think would happen? They think Rastetter would be rude to them? That the crowd would boo them? Don’t they know anything?” He wandered off, shaking his head.

This reminded me of a conversation I had a month ago with another farmer: ”There’s a whole lot of farmers out here who know that when Republican policies get the economy in trouble, they can count on the Democrats to bail them out.”

I asked another man if anyone stood out, “Liked Perry before, but he filibustered the questions. Not sure now.”

I stopped a big man in work boots and jeans. He was a farmer from Grundy County.

“Bush, he said, with a big grin. “No other choice. Smart, cross-party appeal. He could win it all. I like him.”

Not all of the candidates took advantage of the media availability after their discussion, but those who did made the most of it.  In addition to Cruz, Huckabee, Graham, Pataki and Santorum took questions.

It was interesting to note that while the national media treated Cruz and Huckabee like rock stars, and spent some time with Santorum, when Graham and Pataki came looking for some media love, there wasn’t much interest.

I was speaking to an organizer when he brought up the fact that there weren’t any Democratic candidates at the event. “The Democrats really blew an opportunity here,” he said. “Like that Maryland guy...what’s his name? “O’Malley,” I replied. “Yeah, Martin O’Malley! What if he had been here the past couple weeks, visiting farms, talking with equipment dealers, seed guys, and then come and talk with Bruce in front of everyone? Boom, Hillary has her email problems, and he’s the Dem on top!”

As people started filing out as the Ag summit closed, I spoke with another organizer who works for a large ethanol plant. He was there in part to support the renewable fuel standard. “How did the RFS do?” I asked. “Great,” he replied. “Only lost cause is Cruz.”

With Bush now active on the stage, the dynamic has changed. Every candidate of both parties will have to up their game to keep up with him on the issues. Republicans will have to decide which they dislike more, a Bush dynasty or another Democrat in the White House. Of course, there is a large wing of the party that sees Bush as too moderate, and that they need a Tea Party favorite to win. Which is what every Democratic strategist I know wants them to continue to believe.

Remember when Bobby Jindal told fellow Republicans in 2012 that they needed to “stop being the dumb party?”

The party certainly took a step in that direction in Des Moines on Saturday, while the Democrats missed an opportunity. I assure you that Iowa is paying attention.

By Robert Leonard

Robert Leonard covered the 2008 and 2012 Iowa caucuses for KNIA/KRLS Radio in Knoxville and Pella, Iowa. He is an anthropologist, and author of “Yellow Cab.”

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