UPDATED with comments from Herman Cain in Iowa City
IOWA CITY — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is being roundly criticized in Iowa for his decision to skip the Iowa precinct caucuses because he wants to end subsidies for ethanol, a $1.6 billion industry in Iowa.
The criticism wasn’t for his policy position, which ethanol industry leaders noted is in line with proposals co-sponsored by Iowa congressmen, but because it’s the wrong campaign strategy.
Bob Vander Plaats of The Family Leader went so far as to say skipping the Iowa precinct caucus campaign disqualifies Huntsman as a credible presidential candidate.
“If you’re going to run for president, you need to engage the process, engage the debate, lift the level of the debate,” Vander Plaats said before introducing Herman Cain, who was participating in the Family Leader’s Presidential Lecture Series.
If that’s Huntsman’s excuse for bypassing Iowa, he is “in need of a lesson in Iowa politics,” added Secretary of State Matt Schultz, a Council Bluffs Republican.
Iowa is a bellwether state where GOP caucus-goers “care about our families, our faith and our freedom,” Schultz said in a statement June 6.
“We are not single-issue voters. We just want to know how presidential candidates are going to make our country better,” Shultz said. “Hopefully Mr. Huntsman will change his mind and come to Iowa and explain how he plans on fixing the problems facing our country.”
Over the weekend, Huntsman ended speculation about whether he would compete in Iowa, which hosts the first-in-the-nation caucuses. He said he won’t because he doesn’t believe in “subsidies that prop up corn, soybeans and ethanol.”
As excuses go, Schultz said, Huntsman’s “seems to have as much credibility as ‘the dog ate my homework.’”
At first, Vander Plaats said, he thought Huntsman decided to skip Iowa because he disagreed with the core values of social conservatives, including The Family Leader, who have a large impact on the outcome of the precinct caucuses.
“I don’t think you’re running to be president of 49 states. You’re running for president of 50 states,” Vander Plaats said. “Just because you happen to disagree with some people of Iowa I don’t think that’s any reason to bypass the state of Iowa.”
Iowa Renewable Fuels Association Walt Wendland said that when it comes to ethanol a lot changed during the two-and-a-half years Huntsman was serving as ambassador to China.
“His perception of Iowa and current ethanol and energy policy is woefully out-of-date,” Wendland said. “Therefore, we want to invite Ambassador Huntsman to Iowa so he can learn how politics and policy actually work here.”
Iowans want a “sensible and fair energy policy,” he said, adding, “Any candidate who supports a level playing field with true market access can do just fine in Iowa.”
Any candidate who skips Iowa now is not likely to do well in Iowa later,” Wendland added.
Schultz pointed out that western Iowa Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King has opposed ethanol subsidies but has been re-elected by large margin.
So far in this campaign, 2012 GOP hopeful Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota – another ethanol-producing state, has called for phasing out ethanol subsidies. That’s a position similar to legislation co-sponsored by Iowa U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Sen. Tom Harkin, a Republican and Democrat, respectively.
Perhaps, Schultz said, Huntsman is staying away because he is afraid to explain his positions on other issues.”
“If Mr. Huntsman refuses to compete in a bellwether state like Iowa, he is not ready for the big dance,” Schultz concluded. “After all, our last two presidents won the Iowa caucus before they went to the White House.”
Schultz also questioned why Huntsman is distancing himself from his Mormon faith.
“Huntsman should know that Iowans elected me as their Secretary of State and my Mormon faith was never an issue,” he said.
Questioned on the appropriateness of using his official Secretary of State letterhead to issue a comment on Huntsman, a spokeswoman for Schultz said he was “speaking as the Secretary of State. He is fighting for the Iowa caucuses and wants to help preserve Iowa’s important first-in-the-nation status.”