CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Sen. Chuck Grassley ignited a storm of speculation Wednesday by saying he’s within a week or two of making a decision whether to endorse a candidate in the 2012 GOP presidential campaign.
Part of the decision, he added, is whether to endorse anyone.
“I haven’t totally reached a decision,” Grassley, R-Iowa, said during his weekly conference call with reporters. “It could be a decision that I’m not going to endorse anybody.”
Although Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa associate professor of political science, wouldn’t rule out a “none of the above” decision, he believes if Grassley says he’s close to a decision, the senator will pick a favorite.
The six-term Republican didn’t endorse anyone before Iowa’s 2008 first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses.
Grassley has been characteristically guarded in his comments about the contenders, but told Roll Call earlier this year that he only will endorse a candidate who can win beyond Iowa.
Given that criterion, Hagle said he “can see (Mitt) Romney as a possibility.”
However, Grassley has philosophical and policy differences with each candidate, so his best option may be to not endorse and say he’s trying to avoid any dissension within the party, said Chris Larimer, University of Northern Iowa associate professor of political science.
“Privately, however, Grassley most likely disagrees with many candidates on certain issues,” Larimer explained. “Grassley was very critical of Obama’s health-care plan, so this may rule out Romney; and Grassley is unlikely to endorse anyone not perceived as sharing traditional and/or Midwest values. (Rick) Santorum — even though a former colleague in the Senate — is too extreme. And (Texas Gov. Rick) Perry and Grassley most likely disagree on immigration.”
That said, Grassley, as the titular head of the Iowa GOP may make an endorsement to rally the party around the candidate he believes is most likely to win, said Cary Covington of the University of Iowa Political Science Department.
“I have some problems envisioning an endorsement of Romney, but I have more problems envisioning endorsements of anyone else,” Covington said. “I think of Grassley more as part of the Republican establishment than of its dissident ‘tea party’ wing, and so I think, like Chris Christie, he sees this as the time to close ranks around the candidate most likely to be able to defeat (Barack) Obama, who I think is Romney.”
Iowa State University political scientist Steffen Schmidt agrees that a Romney endorsement “would fit right in with the mainstream, pragmatic GOP, but tick off” tea party supporters.
There’s more to consider than ideology and the likelihood of defeating President Obama next fall, said Bruce Nesmith, who teaches political science at Coe College.
Nesmith has his doubts Grassley will endorse anyone. However, should Grassley weigh in on the race before the caucuses, Nesmith is torn between an endorsement of Rep. Michele Bachmann, Grassley’s next door neighbor, Romney, who is the establishment candidate and front runner, or Perry, who will be campaigning Friday night for Grassley’s grandson, state Rep. Pat Grassley, who faces a primary challenge.
It’s unclear what weight a Grassley endorsement would carry. Given that Iowa caucus-goers tend to socially conservative, Larimer thinks it would mean less than an endorsement by Rep. Steve King or Bob Vander Plaats of The Family Leader.
A Grassley endorsement could help Romney get a second look from Iowa Republicans because of the six-term Republican’s credibility in the state.
“It won’t necessarily, in the end, sway people away from someone like Bachmann or (Herman) Cain, but it can’t hurt,” he said.
That credibility within the party also would help allay the concerns some Republicans have with Romney, Hagle added. However, there may be some limits to a Grassley endorsement.
“I don’t know that it would pull Santorum out of the single-digits, but it would probably be a boost” to the former Pennsylvania senator’s campaign, Hagle said.
The candidate who would benefit most from a Grassley endorsement would be Cain, Larimer speculated.
“We know little to nothing about Cain’s policy positions — besides 9-9-9 — so a Grassley endorsement would be huge for this campaign,” he said.