AMES, Iowa — Between Reps. Michele Bachmann’s and Ron Paul’s oversized white party tents, Rep. Steve King held court in his modest canopy at the Ames straw poll.
The Iowa Republican meandered through the crowds of conservative activists like one of the nine candidates on the ballot, stopping every few feet to greet a potentially new voter. His aides wished he would keep walking, halfheartedly suggesting he wear sunglasses to make him less recognizable as they gazed down at their watches.
“I hardly pay any attention to myself. I’ve forgotten about me,” King told Roll Call. “I haven’t initiated anything about my campaign – others have. But it’s not because I’m steering away from it on purpose, I just forgot about it. I’m wrapped up in this presidential race.”
It’s good to be King — at least this weekend.
Presidential candidates kissed King’s ring in hopes of earning the favor of the largest conservative grass-roots following in the state. After five terms in Congress, King’s cable news credentials and consequent conservative fame have catapulted him into the echelon of caucus endorsement royalty with some of the most tenured Iowa Republicans.
Four years ago, King didn’t have his own tent at the Ames straw poll. He showed up, attended and went home.
But this quadrennial event is different for the Congressman for another reason: King will run to represent Ames in the newly redrawn 4th Congressional district, and his race against Christie Vilsack, the former first lady of Iowa, will be the toughest of his career.
“He’s got a more competitive district now than he’s ever had before,” Gentry Collins, the former executive director of the Iowa Republican Party and former RNC political director, told Roll Call. “I think he needs to be a little more careful about his own political fortunes and maybe a little less focused on presidential politics.”
But that’s not what people pestered King about on that sunny weekend in central Iowa earlier this month. As often as a dozen times each hour, reporters and activists wanted to know whether he’d endorsed a candidate yet.
“I suppose I should have a flash card I should show to people” with that answer, King quipped.
King swears he won’t back anyone until after his Labor Day weekend forum with Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). But as King hopped from the Iowa State Fair to candidate tents and his own exhibition during the straw poll weekend, it’s easy to see which Republican candidates are his favorites.
King talks about Bachmann, one of his closest pals on Capitol Hill, like a political crush. When fair-goers asked about the Republican field, King brought up the Minnesota Congresswoman’s name unprompted three times, more than any other candidate. He lingered around the Des Moines Register Soapbox stage at the state fair until her remarks, even when they ran late. As Bachmann made her way to the stage, her handlers pointed out King’s location in the mess of people. They quickly embraced before she took the stage.
The next day, in Bachmann’s air-conditioned tent at the straw poll, King was all smiles as he described the Congresswoman to her supporters.
“I’m proud and happy to call her my friend and encourage this campaign, and thank all of you for coming here and be part of this straw poll,” King called out. “Let’s go take America back!”
Before Bachmann became the first woman to claim an Ames straw poll victory, King also stumped for former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain. King said he would have stopped at every tent if time allowed it, chalking up the tight schedule to his staff — even though he spent significant time greeting activists in the parking lot earlier in the day.
“In the Bachmann tent, the band started playing in the middle of my speech,” he added. “That shortened me up quite a lot. I had a lot of things I might have said, but I didn’t get it done.”
Later on, King greeted Santorum’s supporters at a much less populated tent in a different corner of the parking lot. Santorum wasn’t there yet, but his aides pleaded with King to wait a few minutes while the underdog presidential candidate finished some media interviews.
“Can you tell him to wait and meet some more voters?” a Santorum aide asked King’s handlers, including his son and campaign manager, Jeff King.
When they shared the stage together, King described their long late-night phone calls. When King needed a pen on stage, Santorum quickly rushed to his aide with the writing utensil. King concluded, “Thanks, Rick, I appreciate being your friend!”
“He’s Mr. Conservative in the state of Iowa, and he’s done a great job in the area of Iowa that really matters a lot in the caucuses, which is the conservative western part of the state,” Santorum later told Roll Call. “His support would mean a lot to any candidate.”
Many Republican candidates covet a King endorsement this cycle. After all, other high-ranking Iowa Republicans plan to stay on the sidelines in the primary, such as Gov. Terry Branstad and Rep. Tom Latham. King’s endorsement shares the spotlight only with GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley, who will endorse a candidate in October despite staying neutral in the 2008 presidential race.
That year, King endorsed former Sen. Fred Thompson’s (R-Tenn.) presidential campaign a few weeks before the caucuses, but it was too late to make much of a difference, as Thompson finished in third place. That’s why King plans to move up his timetable this year.
Knowing this, aides said candidates frequently needle King by joking: “Hey, are we going to send out a press release? I can write it up. You just need to sign it.”
Even Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the newest entrant into the presidential field, reached out to King for advice several weeks ago. Perry didn’t exactly heed King’s counsel, skipping the straw poll to announce his candidacy on the same day in South Carolina instead. But King’s focus on the presidential race also worries his colleagues. For the first time in his Congressional career, the five-term Republican must seriously campaign for re-election in the right-leaning district. So far, Vilsack has eclipsed King in fundraising, raising two-and-a-half times his haul last quarter, a rare situation for an incumbent.
“Nobody elicits a more faithful and energetic following than Steve King. That said, he needs to begin taking Christie Vilsack a hell of a lot more seriously,” one veteran Iowa Republican strategist said. “His pathetic fundraising numbers are indicative of a problem he’s always had but served as a brutal wake-up call to stop messing around and run an actual campaign. He’ll win, but he’s going to have to be disciplined, a word nonexistent in his vocabulary until now.”
Privately, Republican aides on Capitol Hill confess they’re happy King will be forced to focus on his re-election race instead of rabble-rousing from the right in the House caucus.
King had a different selling point to voters at the Ames straw poll. He told voters that supporting his campaign isn’t just about opposing Vilsack — it also is about U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.
“My opponent is a proxy for the secretary of Agriculture who is supported by the president,” King said. “It’s going to be a very expensive race, but if we do a good, effective job, we’ll defeat two Vilsacks instead of just one.”