PELLA, IOWA—I closed out 2011 Saturday with a bit of good luck after stumbling upon a mythical creature: a undecided Republican caucus voter who had yet to be interviewed by one of the major news outlets. With 1,500 national and international reporters in the heartland for the Iowa caucuses, it's a coveted, rare find. In Marshalltown the previous night, I watched as The Washington Post's Jason Horowitz rushed to intercept The Atlantic's Molly Ball as she turned her tape recorder on a voter he had already selected for a profile. After a Mitt Romney event Thursday in Mason City, a reporter friend and I noted that we had both previously interviewed Beth, a high-school teacher from Clear Lake. We watched as yet another writer thrust a notepad forward to document how she was a committed Santorum voter while remaining intrigued by Romney.
The room was packed with supporters when I slid along the back wall of the Pella Public Library (a slight old librarian warned no one to light a cigarette since the room was already past fire-code limitations), but there were few other reporters there yet. Santorum's previous event in nearby Knoxville ran late, delaying those in the press gaggle who traveled with the candidate to each event that day.
I struck up a conversation with the man sandwiched next to me in the crowd; Rick Allbee, age 41, lives here in Pella, a town known for its Dutch windmills and annual Tulip Time festival. Now an employee at 3M in Knoxville, Allbee said the economic downturn has been tough on him; he lost his job at Vermeer Manufacturing—a company that produces construction and agricultural equipment—thanks to cutbacks in the business. He did some carpentry for a while, though that dried up as well before he landed at 3M a year and a half ago.
Allbee, a registered Republican, says he plans to vote in next Tuesday's caucus. "I've got to work late that night, but [will] if I get to town in time," he said. He's just the type of voter the campaigns are targeting at the last minute, a voter who will pick a candidate before next Tuesday but has waited until the last minute to make a final decision. Santorum's event was the first Allbee had been to this cycle, though he had wanted to see more. "There's been a lot of them in town," he said, "but I've either been out of town, at work, or doing other things." He hasn't ruled anyone out except for Jon Huntsman, the candidate who has chosen to completely bypass Iowa. "There are so many positives for a lot of them," he said, "and you can't pick and choose different parts so I think everybody is trying to find the most perfect choice that they can."
Even the heterodox Republican Ron Paul is still in the running; Allbee isn't too keen on Paul's foreign policy, but the pre-eminence of economic issues might make that irrelevant. "It's why Ron Paul has gotten so much attention, because he's not a normal Republican candidate per se," Allbee said. "If my decision was based on that item alone—economics—he'd be my favorite. But it's not; it's based on a lot of things."
My conversation with Allbee was in interrupted when the event organizers announced that the space was too small and moved the crowd outside to hear Santorum speak. It was a rushed event for Santorum, who had overbooked himself with events scheduled in separate towns each hour. But a final question kept Santorum lingering in Pella to discuss how he would shut individuals out of the healthcare market. A man in a Minnesota Twins t-shirt posed this scenario to Santorum: He wants to repeal Obamacare but the ban of pre-existing conditions in insurance coverage is popular, so how will he rebut the president's arguments in the general election? Santorum treated the matter forthrightly; he detailed how requiring insurance companies to accept patients without regard to a pre-existing condition necessitates the individual mandate. Santorum said that getting rid of individual mandate was the ultimate good, cancer survivors be damned. "We have a daughter with a preexisting condition and we went to an individual policy no questions asked," Santorum said. "They have to uphold it. Now you have to pay more; well you should pay more. That's more expensive on your insurance. Anybody get in an auto accident and not pay more for their insurance. That's how insurance works."
I caught up with Allbee as the crowd dispersed to see if anything Santorum said had shifted his support. "I liked hearing his reasoning on some of the questions … I'm a logical thinker in a lot of ways, and everything I heard from him was logical, truthful and I could agree with all those questions," Allbee said. "It wasn't much I didn't already know except for the healthcare issue." He might have liked what he heard, but Allbee headed home the same as he arrived: Still one of the approximately 40 percent of Iowans whose final decision won't be made until the shortly before the Iowa caucuses tomorrow.