URBANDALE, Iowa — The 2012 Republican presidential race is wide open in Iowa, where GOP voters will likely cast the first votes toward picking their party's nominee in less than a year.
No prospective GOP White House candidate is close to winning the hearts, minds or broad support of activists in the state. Republicans here are acting more like employers about to conduct a job interview, but they're still trying to figure out what to ask the wannabes.
"Iowa Republicans have not yet seriously honed in on an individual. They're honing in on what it is they want," said Iowa House Majority Whip Erik Helland of Johnston.
Put another way: "I look at this field as a jumbled mess," said Ryan Frederick, a temporary worker from Orient.
McClatchy spoke to 30 activists around the state at four separate sessions last week. Each discussion lasted at least an hour.
At each, the mood was the same — Republicans most want someone who can beat President Obama. They don't know who that is yet.
They want someone who can look and sound presidential — always a challenge against an incumbent president — and who boasts a strong record of support for conservative GOP fiscal and social policies.
Each potential major candidate is considered acceptable, but each has a troublesome flaw or two that renders them less than ideal.
What no one wants is a candidate perceived as too radical, or plagued by a controversial past, or who could have trouble wooing the independents and conservative Democrats whose support will be necessary to win in November 2012.
To many, that instantly rules out 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
"Sarah Palin might be qualified, but she has high negatives," said Vinita Smith, a Panora retiree. Jordan Grant, a Des Moines college student, was more blunt: "The fact that Palin quit in the middle of her first term (as Alaska's governor) makes her unelectable."
Palin's name was rarely mentioned; most here don't expect her to run.
Few stump in Iowa
Part of their problem in assessing candidates is that, unlike other recent pre-election years, few have been around much yet.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was in Des Moines one day last week to tape a local television show, but did nothing more visible. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was at the state capitol a few days before, but he held some private meetings and left.
Supporters of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 GOP caucus, are eager for him to try again. But few remember seeing or hearing from Huckabee lately.
"It's a pretty invisible field," said former Lt. Gov. Arthur Neu.
The best-known likely candidate is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who finished a distant second in the 2008 caucus after an expensive, energetic effort. He's made few appearances in Iowa in the past year, and is dogged by health care.
As governor, Romney signed into law a requirement that almost everyone in Massachusetts obtain health care coverage — a law considered a model for the federal health care plan that makes most Republicans seethe.
"He can't dance around that forever. The first time Republicans debate, somebody is going to bring this up," said Kevin Hall, a Johnston activist. Romney's usual response is that state mandates are fine, but federal mandates are not.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is the exception among expected candidates; he's been traveling widely throughout the state, and he piques the most curiosity. Not only is there a comfort level with him, since his state shares a long border with Iowa, but "he's both a strong social and fiscal conservative," said Dallas County Recorder Chad Airhart.
"But," added Roger Rowland, a West Des Moines retiree, "he has to show more pizzazz." Pawlenty, in short, suffers a charisma deficit.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who's expected to announce his presidential plans within days, also got qualified praise.
"He's by far the most brilliant candidate," said Dallas County Republican Chairman Rob Taylor.
But Tyler De Haan, an Urbandale investment wholesaler, was concerned that Gingrich "has a lot of personal baggage." The former House speaker has been divorced twice, was reprimanded and fined by the House of Representatives for ethics violations, and appeared with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a 2008 ad urging action on climate change.
A deliberative process
The rest of the potential candidates are largely puzzles. Activists acknowledge that Barbour is a master campaigner — but "read his speeches," said Tom Clark, a West Des Moines investment adviser. Barbour's come under fire for remarks that downplayed racism in the South and defended groups that intimidated civil rights workers.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, the tea party favorite? "She would provide a clear difference," said Ryan Rhodes, a Des Moines consultant.
Too outspoken, countered Dean Kleckner, a retired Urbandale farmer. "She doesn't have much chance," he said.
They were among seven Republicans who sat at a round table at the Machine Shed, a restaurant in Urbandale, a Des Moines suburb, talking politics. After they'd gone on for an hour and a half, each offered a 2012 preference.
The tally: One for Romney, one for Bachmann, one for Pawlenty, one for either Gingrich or Palin, one for "someone who's an administrator, not a legislator" — and two for "no one."
That, said Iowa GOP party chairman Matthew Strawn, probably mirrors the thinking among all state Republicans.
"There's a much more deliberative process than usual going on," he said.