Sunday, March 8, 2015

Scott Walker shifts on ethanol, Ted Cruz brings the candor: Iowa Agriculture Summit scouting report

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and other Republican presidential prospects auditioned here Saturday for a crowd that can open doors and wallets in this first and hugely important battleground on the 2016 election calendar.

In a state where farming issues loom largest, the Iowa Agriculture Summit was a literal cattle call of would-be candidates. Each came eager to impress host Bruce Rastetter, a multimillionaire agribusiness mogul and emerging player in GOP politics.

For seven hours, nearly 1,000 industry leaders and other curious observers sat politely inside an exhibition hall at the state fairgrounds. The forum placed a premium not on sound bites but, rather, on the empathy and thoughtfulness that contenders could summon when tackling topics that don't get much attention in national campaigns.

Rastetter gently pressed his guests on subjects as global as trade and immigration and as local as genetically modified foods. Discussions about the Environmental Protection Agency's Renewable Fuel Standard -- a lifeline for corn growers and the ethanol industry -- presented tricky moments for conservatives who favor limited government.

"Don't mess with the RFS!" Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad cautioned at the outset.

When it was over, the real question was if anyone left with a leg up on the nomination that the GOP will award 16 months from now at its Cleveland convention. Consider this an early, but nonetheless illustrative, scouting report from the state that holds the first caucus.

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