DES MOINES, Iowa — All signs pointed to a serious presidential bid.
Campaign workers stood outside the Polk County Convention Complex an hour before Sen. Sam Brownback was scheduled to arrive holding a large banner and telling passersby about the conservative, anti-abortion candidate from Parker, Kan.
Inside, about a dozen Brownback followers handed out stickers and held posters in front of their bodies, waiting to spark a rally once the senator's car pulled in front of the complex.
Clearly, the Iowa campaign volunteers had done their advance work. Brownback signs were plastered along the escalators and covered a wall, where later the volunteers would stand behind Brownback holding up signs in just the right spot to be picked up by television cameras.
Supporters greeted arrivals to the Abraham Lincoln Unity Dinner, the annual Republican Party of Iowa's fundraiser, with "Conservative stickers for free," or a reminder that Brownback is an anti-abortion candidate.
Five minutes before the senator's arrival, his crew gathered with signs outside the convention complex. Trainor Walsh, Iowa field director, choreographed where supporters would stand. "We back Brownback" was chanted as the senator climbed out of a green car and then stopped for a photo op on the sidewalk outside the complex
"We're going to win," Brownback assured his supporters.
Brownback was one of 10 Republican presidential hopefuls making the trek to Iowa this weekend to court potential votes and gain favor with the state's GOP elite. About 1,000 GOP loyalists attended the annual fundraiser, according to organizers.
Others delivering 10-minute speeches and hundred-dollar handshakes were former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; U.S. Sen. John McCain, of Arizona; U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, of Texas; U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, of Colorado; former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore. U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, of California, attended but didn't speak due to a flight delay.
Brownback has reported raising about $2 million for his presidential election campaign from more than 20,000 contributors. That amount pales when compared to the campaign coffers of Romney, Giuliani and McCain.
"We anticipate being able to raise enough money to be competitive," Rob Wasinger, Brownback's campaign spokesman, wrote in an e-mail to The Topeka Capital-Journal on Friday.
Presidential candidates typically campaign heavily in Iowa because of its August straw poll and its presidential caucus in mid-January. Since 2004, Brownback has visited Iowa 22 other times, according to his campaign staff.
"Senator Brownback is a natural fit in Iowa, one of the most important states in the nomination process," Wasinger wrote. "Brownback is the only candidate in the field that was raised on a farm. He shares Iowa's Midwestern values and he strongly identifies with the conservative base of the Iowa Republican Party. It's a trifecta that should bode well for Senator Brownback in Iowa."
Brownback was raised on a farm in Parker, a small town in Linn County, Kan.; was national vice president of the Future Farmers of America in high school; and was the youngest secretary of agriculture in Kansas.
Unknown or underestimated?
David Yepsen, political columnist for the Des Moines Register, said Brownback is an "unknown" to Iowa voters.
"Every poll shows him in the 1 to 2 percent range," he said. "He's spent some time here, but so far it's not reached critical mass."
Yepsen said the leading GOP contenders in his state are Guiliani, Romney, McCain and Fred Thompson, although the latter has yet to formally announce he is running for president.
"Brownback's problem is he's an unknown. He's got better-known contenders," Yepsen said.
Brownback hasn't been able to bring the social conservatives into his corner yet, but has the potential to do so, Yepsen said.
Chuck Laudner, executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa, disagrees.
"Brownback is doing very well here," Laudner said. "He's getting in the right places and working the right people."
Laudner said "there's no clear favorite" among the presidential candidates, and some may underestimate Brownback's ability to rally the GOP faithful.
"He's been here a lot. He's got support here," he said.
Laudner said he has talked to Brownback a few times and believes he appeals to Republicans who are anti-abortion, believe in traditional marriage and favor judicial reform.
However, Laudner said, Brownback will need to broaden his talking points to other areas, such as the war on terrorism, trade, education, health care and tax reform, before he can gain additional support.
"You can't just hit one note," he said. "It's a national campaign."
Leading or lagging?
Laudner and Yepsen agree on one thing: The Iowa straw poll on Aug. 11 will test the viability of Brownback's presidential run.
"It will be a grinder for them," Laudner said.
Yepsen said the candidates who don't finish in the top three spots in the poll likely will pull out of the race because they will lose momentum and not be able to raise additional money for their campaigns.
That is why Brownback and the other GOP candidates must make a "face-to-face time commitment" to campaigning in Iowa in the next few months, Laudner said. Typically, a couple of the candidates' campaigns fold before the straw poll and two or three shut down afterward, he said.
Yepsen said it is too early in the presidential campaign season — the first primary, in New Hampshire, is eight months away — to predict who will lead the pack and where Brownback might edge in.
"Lots of Republicans are lining up with candidates, but a lot of them are holding back and some will change their support (over time)," he said. "It's the nature of the process."
One of the challenges Brownback is facing is that, unlike some of the other candidates, the senator has "a day job" that limits how much traveling he can do and how many appearances he can make, Yepsen said.
"So I will give the man the benefit of the doubt," he said. "People aren't writing him off, they're just not writing him in."
Jan Biles can be reached at (785) 295-1292 or email@example.com.