Why Iowa Conservatives Haven't Warmed to Perry

I'm going to contradict myself and briefly discuss Rick Santorum again. The former U.S. senator secured a key Iowa Republican's endorsement over the weekend, a move that won't significantly improve his chances at gaining the presidential nomination (still only a fan-fiction dream among personhood supporters). But the endorsement highlights the prevalence of discontent among the conservative base this year.

Chuck Laudner has a nonexistent public profile—not just nationally, but within Iowa as well. However, he's just the sort of hire that successful presidential campaigns have been built upon in the past. Laudner worked for Steve Forbes in 2000, but his standing didn't truly rise until 2004, when he organized Steve King's first congressional run. Laudner followed King to Washington, where he served as the archconservative representative's chief of staff. He returned to Iowa after a few years and worked as executive director for the Republican Party there during the 2008 caucuses. Last year, Laudner was tapped to serve as campaign manager of Iowans for Freedom, the group that led an effort to remove three Iowa Supreme Court justices from the bench after they legalized same-sex marriage in 2009.

Atop the list of coveted Iowans who do not hold elected office, Laudner is a dream acquisition for any presidential candidate. He didn’t join a campaign in 2008 but is intimately acquainted with the process after he ran the operations for the caucus and straw poll as director of the state party in 2007. He also crosses the gap between business and evangelical Republicans, holding sway among the social conservative base thanks to his time with King and the anti-judge vote last fall. He spent all of last fall driving his pickup across the state to visit small towns and preach on the dangers of "activist" judges, so he is an expert at the level of retail politicking necessary for Iowa presidential campaigns.

His decision to support Santorum in 2012 won't do anything to change the nomination. As I've explained before, Santorum's extreme views on social issues put him too far outside mainstream sentiment to receive a surge of support, despite the outsized sway held by social conservatives in early states like Iowa and South Carolina. Instead, Laudner's endorsement speaks to a lack of direction among the conservative branch of the GOP, which has failed thus far to present a plausible alternative to Mitt Romney.

I spoke with Laudner earlier this summer while I was reported on that judicial-retention campaign. We spoke during the middle of the Michele Bachmann surge, yet Laudner had no desire to work for her campaign; she had not spent the time to build the kind of ground game he expected. Laudner was discontent with the general field, less for their views than their approach to campaigning.

Like most old Iowa political hands, Launder values the importance of the process and expected the national Republicans to build field organizations to win support of locals such as himself. "No candidate has an effective ground game here," he said at the time, "which I can't explain because it should be easy to get people motivated here. But there are a lot of folks like me waiting for the field to develop and settle."

One soon-to-be candidate had piqued Launder's interest, though. "I could see myself voting for Rick Perry on February 6 if he runs," Laudner told me, back before Perry officially announced and the early states were unsettled on their dates. "My prediction: If he gets in, he's got a clear path to victory here -- he seems to be the whole package."

Alas, it wasn't a match meant to be. Perry did, of course, officially announce his campaign by the end of the summer. But by starting off far later than the other candidates, Perry immediately floundered. His views on immigration came under attack, and he lacked the staff foundation to stave off the criticisms face-to-face with would-be caucus voters. Perry has been steadily beefing up his Iowa staff, but it is still lacks the depth of candidates in years past. According to The Washington Post, Perry has just five campaign offices and fewer than ten paid staffers in the state. Compare that to 30 offices for Barack Obama in '08, or 20 offices and more than 100 staffers for John Edwards at this time four years ago.

“He’s earned my vote," Laudner told The Iowa Republican after he endorsed Santorum. "His conservative credentials and a 99-county tour deserve all our support. He looked me in the eye and asked for my vote." Rick Perry must have never gotten the message that to win the early small states, one must appeal to people at the ground level, rather than letting shining hair and a vast trove of campaign cash carry the day.

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