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Iowa's lesson: GOP voters want a winner

By Alex Castellanos, CNN Contributor
  • Alex Castellanos: Iowans are blunt and straightforward, have little patience for empty talk
  • They're looking for a candidate who can bring back America's confidence, he says
  • Michele Bachmann may fizzle out, leaving Rick Perry and Mitt Romney left standing, he says

Editor's note: Alex Castellanos is a founding partner of National Media Inc., which specializes in Republican political advertising and has served as media consultant to the presidential campaigns of Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Phil Gramm and Mitt Romney.

(CNN) -- Iowa greets you honestly.

As you fly into Des Moines, the state confronts you, flat and blunt, green fields disciplined by straightforward grids. The people are direct, too. Soaring rhetoric and urban glitz not only fail to impress, they seem ridiculously out of place here. Iowans dress to work, not to affect. Rhinestones are reserved for Friday night at the state fair, on women's jeans.

These undisguised people gathered at the 2011 Republican straw poll to express concern for their country. More than one Iowa family scrimped to make the trip. They are worried about their nation. They fear it is in decline. The certainty with which they marked their future, in rectangles and straight lines, is disappearing. Their confidence is fading along with it.

Last election may have been about hope and change. This one, in Iowa and elsewhere, is about strength and certainty. This president has lost control. He hurls speeches at approaching fires. The flames spread. He can't unite our nation or its leaders to extinguish them.

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These Iowans looked at the candidates they might send to Washington to regain control. After the downgrade, their standards are higher. This is a fight they cannot lose. Defeat means losing their country. Electability matters: They will not nominate a candidate whose limited appeal gives President Barack Obama four more years.

In the debate preceding the straw poll, they saw Tim Pawlenty quiver on the attack. His support collapsed. This election, mistakes will be tolerated. Divisions will be repaired. Weakness will not be forgiven.

Michele Bachmann played Margaret Thatcher and won. Now, Bachmann will not only need Thatcher's spine, she will need her vision. She'll need to explain how she would renew the economy. She'll need to demonstrate she can win soccer moms in the suburbs and independents in Ohio.

Bachmann is more inclined to be Pat Buchanan than Ronald Reagan, however. The straw poll is more likely to be the end of her campaign than the beginning.

That would leave two candidates, rolling out of Iowa. In one corner, the job-inspiring, populist governor from one of our reddest states. In the other, the job-making, patrician businessman from the bluest.

It would be understatement to say I've not been a fan of Rick Perry for president. His shoot-from-the-lips style conveys thoughtlessness. Additionally, the suburbs won't put "Elmer Gantry" in the Oval Office: Perry can't permit voters to conclude he sells his faith more than he lives it.

They will not nominate a candidate whose limited appeal gives President Barack Obama four more years.
--Alex Castellanos

Geographically, ideologically and culturally, Perry also echoes George W. Bush, the opponent Obama campaigned against and beat last time. Why would Republicans make a sequel to a movie no one went to see?

To my surprise, however, after watching his announcement speech, I must credit Perry: The intensity with which he picked up the fallen torch of Reagan put him close to the heart of the Republican Party. His unwavering exposition of bedrock conservative principles was a demonstration of strength: He introduced the country to a man who does not have to ask others who he is or what he believes. And Perry's optimistic declaration of faith in the American people, not Washington, is the path to electability: It is exactly what dispirited independent voters are looking for. His campaign bolstering Perry may not go far, but his assault on Washington and his opponents will.

For months, Mitt Romney has sat on the sidelines. He has been absent from the grid that marks the playing field, failing to define why he alone, in these urgent times, should occupy our highest office. He's allowed this contest to develop between conservative Texas steel and unflappable entrepreneurial accomplishment. Now, the race begins.

Romney should look over his shoulder. There is a freight train coming.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alex Castellanos.