Tea-party support figures to be a hot commodity for Republicans running for president in 2012, and, according to an Iowa tea party organizer, the three leading contenders to win the backing of tea partiers in the first caucus state are Sarah Palin, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (IN).
"There's a list of people I know us as tea partiers have in mind that we would love to see, however some of them aren't necessarily the first people on the list for everybody," Ryan Rhodes, the Iowa chairman of Tea Party Patriots, the most prominent national network of tea party activists, told me over the phone this week.
Palin, Jindal, and Pence are the three most talked about among the Iowa tea party activists, Rhodes says, in addition--caveat for the critical reader--to being his own favorites. "If any one of those three would ask me tomorrow to get on board, those are the three I would support," said Rhodes, who is also working on Republican Dave Funk's 2010 challenge to Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-IA). Rhodes also admits he "may have started those rumblings" when it comes to Pence.
Rhodes says he has around 10,000 tea party activists and supporters in his contact list statewide--which, if unified behind a single candidate in Iowa, could make the tea party movement a factor in determining who wins the state and ultimately, given Iowa's significance, the Republican presidential nomination.
Since 2008, Iowa has been thought of as Huckabee country, after the former Arkansas governor came up with a surprise win in the caucuses over Mitt Romney and John McCain.
"There are a lot of people involved [in the tea party movement] that are big Huckabee people. I think that's waned a lot, especially in the last couple weeks," Rhodes said, as controversy unfolded over Huckabee's commutation of Maurice Clemmons' prison sentence, after Clemmons shot and killed four police officers outside Seattle.
"Some of the people I know who are his biggest supporters...some of them are questioning whether or not he should run," Rhodes said.
Mitt Romney, who ran an aggressive campaign against Huckabee and McCain in Iowa in 2008, also has a good deal of support, Rhodes said, and there's some "bad blood" between Huckabee and Romney supporters--which, according to Rhodes, might detract from both the former governors' chances (and the climate of Iowa Republican politics) should both decide to run.
Another candidate who's generated discussion among tea party activists, according to Rhodes, is Sen. John Thune (R-SD), who has not been included in the consensus list of Republicans purportedly interested in running. Some conservatives are starting to get excited, however, about the possibility of a Thune run.
As far as other contenders go, Rhodes says Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty faces the challenges of low name recognition and possible associations with the GOP establishment; House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (VA) suffers from having supported Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava (along with other GOP leaders, other than Pence) in New York's 23rd district special election before Conservative Doug Hoffman surged and Scozzafava dropped out; and some people like Sen. Rick Santorum (PA), but he hasn't generated buzz.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are at the bottom of the tea partiers' list.
With so far to go until 2012, it's hard to predict where affiliations will lie at that point. Candidates like Pawlenty, Santorum, Cantor, and Thune (should he become more interested) will have time to introduce themselves to Iowa conservatives, and things could change if either Huckabee or Romney decides not to run.