Early GOP vetting starts for 2010 with Carroll-area legislator in mix
By DOUGLAS BURNS
Iowa Republican strategist Tim Albrecht sees a canyon-sized opening for his party in the 2010 gubernatorial race in which a potential double-digit-sized list of challengers to Democrat Chet Culver is building.
One legislator in the mix, although not formally announced, is State Rep. Rod Roberts, a Carroll Republican who has served west-central Iowa for a decade in Des Moines.
Albrecht said Roberts, a social conservative, has the style and skills to hold the GOP's right base while reaching out to moderates and Democrats.
"Rod has a way about him, a very gentle mannerism that could bring in some of those individuals," says Albrecht, a former statehouse staffer who now operates TheBeanWalker.com, a conservative Web site the Washington Post tabs as one of the tops for politics in Iowa.
An ordained pastor (although he hasn't been behind the pulpit for 20 years) Roberts is development director for the 125-congregation strong Christian Churches/Churches of Christ in Iowa.
Because of this background Roberts won't be forced to headline his candidacy with the twin towers of Hawkeye State conservatism: opposition to abortion and gay marriage. He's strong on both fronts.
"He doesn't have to lead with his faith because people already know him," says Bryan English, a spokesman with the highly influential Christian-conservative Iowa Family Policy Center.
English said the GOP must field candidates who can deliver a broad message. Roberts would seem to have that ability, English said.
"He's a very well-rounded representative," English said. "He does a great job. He's very good at what he does."
Following an electoral thrashing in 2008, the GOP, both nationally and statewide, is in the process of deep soul-searching, with some arguing for entrenchment with a robust, unapologetic social agenda and others calling for laser-like focus on economics in the form of policies aimed at reining in taxes and reducing the role of government.
For his part, Roberts says he's closer to a run than ever.
"I am still very seriously considering this question of running," Roberts said. "I am probably more interested in running than I have been up to this point."
Roberts said he will make a decision "sooner rather than later" and is eyeing the Fourth of July as a tentative date for deciding whether to establish an exploratory committee. That group then would determine if Roberts has enough fund-raising muscle to be competitive.
"The biggest hurdles are can he raise his profile and raise the money he needs," Albrecht said.
A field is emerging that includes some well-known politicians and candidates with big-time business credentials and bases. As it stands that list would include: Sioux City business consultant Bob Vander Plaats (who ran in 2006 before joining forces with the eventual nominee, Congressman Jim Nussle) U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, State Rep. Christopher Rants of Sioux City, Iowa Auditor Dave Vaudt, former State Sen. Jeff Lamberti, an Ankeny lawyer and board member of Casey's General Stores and Vermeer Corp. president Mary Andringa of Mitchellville.
Roberts knows he doesn't go into the starting gate with the best odds. That suits him just fine.
"I kind of like being the darkhorse person in the mix of names," Roberts said.
Roberts starts with much less of a geographic base than potential contenders with statewide, regional - or in the case of King - national name recognition.
A Carroll resident, Roberts represents House District 51, which includes Carroll County, part of Sac County (Wall Lake and Lake View) and eastern Crawford County (but not Denison).
The obvious question looms for Roberts: Can he build support outside of western Iowa? The short answer is yes.
"Name recognition and fund-raising will be a real challenge with such a large field," says Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt. "However, I think Roberts has good conservative credentials and roots in the faith-based community to go after the spot on the ballot."
Schmidt is also a commentator for InsiderIowa.com. An audio recording of Schmidt's complete vetting of Roberts as a possible candidate is posted on the The Daily Times Herald's Internet homepage, carrollspaper.com.
Roberts' name has been discussed in the highest GOP circles.
Iowa's last two Republican governors, Robert Ray and Terry Branstad, said in earlier interviews that Roberts has the standing in the party to make a run.
"Personally and politically I think a lot of Rod Roberts and others do, too," says David Oman, who was executive assistant to Ray and Branstad, served as co-chair of the Iowa Republican Party from 1985 to 1993 and was a candidate for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 1998.
In an interview last week, Oman said Roberts has an intangible quality working for him, what the Des Moines Republican termed a "winning personality."
Roberts also can count his wife, Trish, development director at St. Anthony Regional Hospital in Carroll, as a major political asset, Oman said.
"His wife Trish is terrific," Oman said. "Iowans want to get to know a spouse. She certainly will be beneficial to Rod."
That said, Oman thinks geography will be the major challenge for a possible Roberts bid.
He'll need money and he'll need to get around the state - the latter of which is more challenging than it may seem, according to Oman.
"Iowa may look small on a map but whether you're driving or flying it is an expansive state," Oman said.
Because Iowa hosts first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses every four years voters expect high-level candidates to almost go door to door.
Additionally, Republicans must travel more aggressively to win statewide in Iowa as the party's base is more dispersed in rural, suburban and urban areas of the state - unlike Democrats who can pull off wins by running up margins in about two dozen counties, Oman said.
"With others from western Iowa in, that will make this opportunity perhaps more challenging," Oman said.
Oman is among those veteran politicos in his party urging a primacy of economics over fire-breathing right-wing social agenda rhetoric that alienates independents, moderates and conservatives Democrats - all of whom Oman thinks are ripe for the picking in 2010 because of dissatisfactions with Culver and fears about the growing role of government in Des Moines and Washington, D.C.
"I would come down on the side of suggesting we have to rally Republicans on core principles of limited government and sanity when it comes to spending and individual responsibility and freedom and growth," Oman said.
In eastern Iowa, top Republicans says they are familiar with Roberts but need to know more.
The Roberts "brand" is just not known there, said Tim Palmer of Cedar Rapids, a small-business man who chairs the Linn County Republican Party.
"The feedback I've heard from this side of the state is that no one is taking it seriously, but that's nothing against Rod," Palmer said. "He seems to be well thought of on your side of the state. He seems to have a good brand with the people who do know him."
Palmer, a social conservative who is the editor of a popular Web site called HawkeyeReview.com, says Roberts' biography is appealing to him.
To this point the Carroll person who rose the highest in state government is attorney Art Neu, a former lieutenant governor and an admirer of Roberts, although Neu is decidedly more moderate.
"I think he's about as reasonable a candidate as I could possibly expect from the Republican Party today," Neu said. "He's been a good legislator. I think he'd be a good governor."
This story first appeared in The Carroll Daily Times Herald.
Photo: Jeff Storjohann, Carroll Daily Times Herald