Not even three years ago, the chairman of the Iowa Tea Party was a 26-year-old college student studying "turf grass management''—as in golf courses. Taking two years off to work odd jobs had left him without enough credits to graduate. He was broke.
Now, potential presidential candidates know Ryan Rhodes on a first-name basis. And by virtue of his status as a movement leader in the state with first dibs on the presidential race, he's poised to play an outsized role in helping to choose the 2012 Republican nominee.
The Iowa Tea Party's two-week-long statewide bus tour in June aims to train hundreds of voters to participate in the Iowa caucuses and showcase presidential candidates along the way. It's an ambitious goal for a loosely organized group with a website still under construction.
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"This isn't about just getting people out to a rally,'' said Rhodes, who at 28 could still pass for a student at Iowa State University. "This is about getting people to do more than just vote. Our goal is to make a difference. If candidates are talking about our issues, we win.''
Unlike the broader movement, tea party activists in socially conservative Iowa are likely to be as concerned about abortion and gay marriage as they are about deficit spending. The bus tour will focus on balancing the federal budget, but Rhodes said there's room to address other issues, too, downplaying tensions between fiscal and social conservatives.
"If people are passionate about something, we don't want to stifle it,'' he said in a recent interview in a trendy Des Moines bar. Older Republican activists who spot the dimpled Rhodes greet him like their grandson. "We're not one-issue voters.''
Rhodes never expected to be at the forefront of presidential politics. When he started college, he was more interested in partying and going to football games. He was found guilty of underage drinking in 2002. A couple years later, he left college and floated from one job to another: chef, construction worker, clothing store salesman, pizza delivery guy.
His unlikely road to grassroots activism began with a protest over a campus blood drive after he returned to Iowa State in 2007. A handful of students were accusing the Red Cross of discriminating against gay men by refusing to take their higher-risk blood.
To Rhodes, the protest smacked of political correctness, and he plunged into movement conservatism. He read Barry Goldwater's "The Conscience of a Conservative," William Blackstone's "Commentaries on the Laws of England," and Thomas Paine's "Common Sense." He started going to church. He interned at the Leadership Institute, a boot camp for conservative activists in Virginia.
In 2008, still in college, he turned theory into practice and ran for the Iowa House against a Democratic incumbent. He didn't have a car, so he took the bus. He wore out four pairs of shoes. The centerpiece of his platform was a plan to boost Iowa's economy by encouraging college graduates to stay in the state. If they got jobs in Iowa after graduation, the money they owed in income taxes would go toward paying off student loans.
After he lost the election, "literally penniless and eating eggs,'' Rhodes honed his chops at retail politics working at a Chrysler dealership and selling ads for a group of radio stations. On the side, he organized tea party rallies and lobbied a key Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, to vote against President Obama's health care reform. In 2010, he managed the unsuccessful congressional campaign of a retired pilot and gun enthusiast who carries a copy of the Constitution in his coat pocket.
But Rhodes is not your stereotypical, in-your-face tea party firebrand. His Democratic opponent in the 2008 House race, Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, recalls him as "polite, pleasant to be around; a little shy, even.''
"He was very passionate about ideological ideas, but he was not intimidating,'' she added. "No screaming. No yelling. Nothing like that.''
Last year, Rhodes led the opposition against a billboard in downtown Mason City that was put up by another tea party group. It pictured President Obama with Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Lenin and read, "Radical leaders prey on the fearful and naive." The billboard came down after Rhodes spoke up.
"I think opposing the billboard was a smart decision,'' Wessel-Kroeschell said. "He was trying to make sure that the tea party was focused on fiscal responsibility, which could be a winning issue for them.''
Tea party activists in Iowa are credited with helping Republicans win back the majority in the Iowa House and narrowing the Democratic majority in the Senate in the 2010 election. Riding high on the tea party's success, Rhodes booked an arena in January and expected a crowd of 200 people. Only 35 showed up, prompting Rhodes to start thinking more about grassroots training than rallies.
After the bus tour, he plans to work on one of the presidential campaigns.
"He's created his own opportunities by being aggressive and taking chances,'' said Matt Strawn, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. "He's like a political entrepreneur. He has the opportunity to drive the debate in a way few Iowans do, and I think he takes that responsibility seriously."