Why Iowa’s conservative kingmaker Steve King hasn’t picked a 2012 candidate

Rachel Rose Hartman

Rep. Steve King, the most influential conservative lawmaker in Iowa's House delegation, is like many Republican voters in his home state and across the country: He hasn't made up his mind who he's planning to support for president in 2012, even with the Jan. 3 caucus vote little more than three weeks away.

And King--best known as an ardent supporter of social-conservative issues--isn't looking just to traditional "values" issues as the yardstick for his support. Rather, he's gauging the GOP field's economic positions as the chief criterion--and so far hasn't found a candidate who measures up. "Right now, we don't have a candidate who has adequately articulated the problem," King told Yahoo News in a recent interview.

He explained further that he's directly communicated his concerns to the candidates and their staffers and is waiting to hear more from them. "I'm listening for that," he said.

If GOP presidential hopefuls know what's good for them, they won't keep King listening for long. The conservative lawmaker, elected to represent western Iowa's fifth district in 2002, carries so much weight in caucus season that he's been able to determine when a candidate isn't running for president if he's not gracing King with the local VIP treatment. In the early phase of the 2008 race, for example, the presidential ambitions of Newt Gingrich--currently enjoying a comfortable lead in Iowa's pre-caucus polling--were the subject of much feverish speculation. But as pundits rushed to second-guess the former House speaker, King knew right away that Gingrich wouldn't be mounting a 2008 run, thanks to a chance encounter between the two men outside of Fox News' Washington, DC, studio. As King recalls the moment, Gingrich recognized King, offered a brief greeting and in a telling decision, "moved on quickly."

"I noticed he didn't linger," King said.

Riding with the King

If you want to make an impression on Iowa's conservative electorate, in other words, you linger with Steve King. Indeed in the week ahead of a presidential election, most Republican candidates can be found not just lingering around King, but emailing him in the middle of the night, arranging sit-down talks, calling him for counsel, and even suiting up to shoot pheasants alongside him with the press corps in tow.

Over this cycle, the congressman stresses that he hasn't discounted any of the major candidates and is keeping an open mind about the entire field. But that's not to say he doesn't hold them to a high standard.

And while social issues loom large for him and his fellow Iowa conservatives, King also stresses that, this time out, they aren't going to be enough by themselves to register a win in Iowa. "Constitutional conservatives are the only ones that are going to succeed in the Iowa caucus," he said.

Hitting the right conservative note

Iowa GOP voters flexed their conservative bona fides in 2008, when they propelled Baptist minister and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to the top spot in the race. And on Aug. 13, tea party favorite Michele Bachmann won the influential Ames Straw Poll . (Though the straw poll is a paid event for party activists, and in no way a reliable measure of the broader electorate's mood; Bachmann, for her part, has faded to the lower tier of candidates in both Iowa and national surveys since the summer.)

During the balmy phase of the Bachmann campaign, a King endorsement looked like a natural fit. Bachmann had been born in Iowa, and the two like-minded House colleagues are very close.

So why did King pass on a Bachmann endorsement? Did he feel like Bachmann's appeal wouldn't translate on a national stage? King demurred in giving a direct reply, stressing again that he sees limitations for all the candidates on economic policy. He politely characterized Bachmann as a strong candidate who's conducted effective voter outreach in the Hawkeye State.

King also offered pronounced, consistent praise for another ideological comrade in arms, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. King said that among the present field, Santorum has worked hardest in Iowa. "I can say that objectively" King insisted, noting that Santorum has campaigned in 88 of Iowa's 99 counties, touting a fiscally and socially conservative platform.

King showed he also has profound respect for Santorum's character.

King paused and took a deep breath as he recounted Santorum's discussion Nov. 19 at the Thanksgiving Family Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, about his youngest daughter, Isabella Maria, "Bella," who suffers from Trisomy 18--an acute and fatal disorder related to Down's syndrome. King appeared personally moved by Santorum's confession that he had wrongly viewed his daughter as "less of a person" because of her disability in order to shield himself emotionally from the likelihood of losing her.

"That showed the depth of love he has for his family," King said.

For himself and other Iowa voters, such character revelations will loom large, King maintained. He added that the defining questions for many in the state's conservative electorate are "What's the subject of their character? The subject of their faith?"

Not surprisingly, King keeps in regular contact with both Bachmann and Santorum. "I owe Santorum a call today," he said--and goes on to add that he probably owes about five presidential candidates return phone calls.

The politics of courtship

So the real question would seem to be: Who isn't talking to Steve King--and thereby probably calculating that they lack  the resources or the support to win in Iowa?

So far, King told Yahoo News, there are just two: onetime Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who also served as U.S. Ambassador to China; and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. (King also noted that he hadn't heard from former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, but Cain has since exited the presidential race following allegations of sexual harassment and an extramarital affair.)

It's not exactly shocking, King said, that he and Paul wouldn't be comparing notes in Iowa. He and Paul know each other well from the House, and Paul is unlikely to waste his time courting King, since the two men will simply never agree on national defense, foreign policy and trade. "We know where each other stand," King said.

Paul has made an aggressive effort to market himself to Iowa's social conservatives, running a series of anti-abortion ads in the state after he landed second place in the August straw poll. King said he didn't know if Iowa voters would embrace Paul as a values candidate, but suggested that, in his view, Paul's anti-abortion rhetoric might be politically motivated.

King and other longtime abortion foes have done "a lot of abortion legislation," the congressman said. "I don't want to say every day, but . . . I think this is a new emphasis for Ron," King said.

King has kept up regular talks with Mitt Romney, who registered a disappointing second-place showing behind Huckabee in Iowa in 2008. King declined to size up Romney's appeal for Iowa conservatives this time out, and instead lauded Romney's maturation on the stump. "He is a better candidate today than he was four years ago," King said, adding that he now has "more depth" in handling tough questions.

Indeed, King is generous in appraising the campaign performance of all the candidates. "All of these people are putting themselves out there and trying," he said, and, turning to the endorsement question once more, added that he fears that the presidential hopefuls he bypasses for an endorsement will interpret his seal of approval for one candidate as an "implied criticism" of all the others.

In 2008, King endorsed former Tennessee Senator and actor Fred Thompson ahead of the Iowa caucuses. Thompson placed a distant third in Iowa. It was a so-so showing, but still enough to prompt Thompson--a late entry into the race--to soldier on to South Carolina, where he hoped to build a critical mass of social-conservative support.

King's backing is coveted enough that the lawmaker and his staff take special pains to schedule his courtship by presidential hopefuls. After King's staffers had overheard Rick Perry mention his interest in hunting, they eventually issued invitations to the entire 2012 field to join King on a pheasant-hunting outing. Both Santorum and Perry jumped at the chance.

The King team then arranged for their boss to set separate hunting expeditions for both Perry and Santorum during an annual hunting event he was hosting at a 900-acre hunting preserve outside of Sioux City. On Oct. 22, Perry and King donned neon orange hunting vests, camouflage boots and hats and met with the press ahead of their trip. King hunted with Santorum the following day.

King said both men were "good shots" and demonstrated "confidence" around firearms. "I'm really confident that either of them will defend our Second Amendment rights," he said, adding that "there were so many feathers in the air that it looked like a pillow fight."

Hunting outings make for good photo-ops, but King generally favors lower-profile meetings with candidates. When Perry first wanted to get to know King, the two men met in the lobby of an Iowa hotel  at 7 a.m. and spent 90 minutes together, chairs facing one another, discussing the finer points of immigration and tax policy. Four years ago, Romney and King met for a one-on-one dinner at a Des Moines restaurant.

Losing the retail touch?

In this cycle, King observes, he's hosted fewer of these  getting-to-know-you meetings--largely because he already knows all the candidates vying for his attention. Instead, there are many more informal discussions and consultations--oftentimes on the fly, via phone calls and emails, even in the middle of the night.

King said after he publicly criticized Gingrich's immigration statements made during a Nov. 22 presidential debate, the former House speaker fired off an email to him in the middle of the night.

"Newt should have been sleeping, but he sent it. It was 4:30 am," King said. Gingrich insisted in the message that he does not support amnesty for people who entered the United States illegally, as King suggested. But King said he stood firm--and replied with a detailed list explaining why he criticized the candidate.

King is very serious and deliberate about the endorsement process--and is just as emphatic about his home state's pride of place in the primary schedule.

"I always want to see Iowa have maximum impact" he said. "Otherwise, we will eventually lose our first-in-the-nation status."

As is the case New Hampshire, retail politics remain the norm in Iowa, offering candidates without huge organizations or bank accounts a chance to compete on a more even playing field. That's one reason why King organized a "Conservative Principles Conference" in Iowa late last March. He said he and other supporters believed "caucus season was moving too slowly" and they wanted the conference to "jumpstart" the process.

Virtually everywhere in Iowa, voters are used to seeing candidates in person at the Iowa state fair, attending local events, giving speeches, even showing up for a random church supper. "If we lost Iowa and New Hampshire" as first-in-the-nation contests, King said, "these candidates would go to New York and California and we'd never know them personally." In that scenario, King said, only "deep pocket candidates" would succeed, spelling the end of retail politics on the national stage.

As Iowans and the presidential candidates await King's decision, the congressman continues to remain involved in the presidential process, speaking with candidates and attending and organizing events.

For all the time King spends in the tick of the presidential nominating process, is he ever tempted to go native, and mount a presidential run of his own? For a brief time this year, his name was floated as a potential presidential candidate, but King quickly quashed such talk. "I can't see myself doing that," he said.

And it turns out that the same goes for vice presidential talk, King revealed to Yahoo News.

"I've not been thinking about the vice presidency or talking about it," he said. And candidates take note: Offering King a vice presidential slot won't get you an endorsement, either.

King said if anyone does try to sway him with that offer, he'll shoot them down. "I would say 'Let's not talk business, or go down these lines . . . . Let's do the right thing for the country.'"

Other popular Yahoo! News stories:

Want more of our best political stories? Visit The Ticket or connect with us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.