GOP Hopefuls Do A Balancing Act At Ag Summit

Mar 8, 2015
Originally published on March 8, 2015 1:08 pm
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I would be willing to wager that very few of you probably would like to spend a whole lot of time thinking about the 2016 presidential race, but the campaigning has begun. And yesterday, potential GOP candidates traveled to Iowa to get some face time with the first-in-the-nation caucus goers. It all went down at The Iowa Agriculture Summit, and NPR's Tamara Keith was there, too.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The summit was put on by a man named Bruce Rastetter, a wealthy Republican donor who made his money in agribusiness and who wanted to quiz potential presidential candidates about ag policy.

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BRUCE RASTETTER: So we thought it made sense that we ought to have a discussion. We ought to ask those questions. We're hopeful for answers.

KEITH: Nine potential candidates showed up - all Republicans. Each got 20 minutes on stage before an audience of hundreds and a whole riser full of cameras. They were answering sometimes wonky questions from Rastetter about farming, wind power, immigration, trade and the big one - the RFS. That's short for renewable fuel standard, the federal mandate that puts ethanol in gasoline.

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RASTETTER: Let's talk about the RFS.

Renewable fuels.

Next subject, the RFS.

You've been an unabashed supporter of the RFS.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

RASTETTER: Why?

KEITH: If there was any question about the overriding viewpoint of the Iowa Ag Summit, look no further than the giant foam fingers one sponsor passed out. They read renewable fuels, number one. The speeches from Iowa Governor Terry Branstad and former Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge made it clear where Iowa leaders stand.

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TERRY BRANSTAD: Don't mess with the RFS.

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PATTY JUDGE: Together we can protect the RFS. So let's make certain that whoever wins this Iowa caucus is someone who's going to stand with us.

KEITH: In past presidential cycles, proving one's commitment to ethanol was an essential part of a successful campaign in Iowa. Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, both past caucus winners, reaffirmed their support on the Iowa Ag Summit stage, as did South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham.

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SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Every gallon of ethanol you can produce here in Iowa is one less gallon to have to buy from people who hate your guts.

KEITH: But outside of Iowa, that the fuel standard is controversial. There are questions about the energy needed to make ethanol, whether it's really all that efficient. The oil industry is fighting it. And then for conservatives like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, there's the matter of a federal government mandate.

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SENATOR TED CRUZ: I don't think Washington should be picking winners and losers.

KEITH: Let's just say that wasn't an applause line.

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CRUZ: Look, I recognize that this is a gathering of a lot of folks who the answer you'd like me to give is that I am for the RFS, darn it - that that would be the easy thing to do.

KEITH: And he wasn't the only one. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was among those who tried to strike a balance between opposing government mandates and praising ethanol. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was in that camp, too. It was his first trip to Iowa as a potential candidate, and every seat in the room was full when he took the stage. Bush got a laugh when while answering a question about food labeling, he started talking about what he planned to make for brunch.

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JEB BUSH: We'll be cooking Iowa beef, and...

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BUSH: And I'll probably make a really good guacamole. And I want to know where that avocado is from.

KEITH: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie tried to boost his agricultural bona fides.

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CHRIS CHRISTIE: New Jersey is the Garden State, so it's not like I come out here not knowing any of this, but...

KEITH: Of course the only reason nine big-name politicians trekked to Iowa during the winter to talk about farming is because Iowa will host the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus less than a year from now. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.