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Top Iowa Candidates? It's Anyone's Guess

Little more than a year before the general election, Iowa's top two races are effectively frozen _ one by a potential candidate who hasn't decided whether to run, the other by a promised candidate who hasn't decided whether to be named.

Republicans are waiting to see if former four-term Gov. Terry Branstad will seek the office again after a 12-year absence. And Democrats wonder who the mystery candidate is that party leaders assure them will give GOP Sen. Charles Grassley "the race of his life" as he seeks a sixth term.

"Both sides are doing the same thing," said former Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Stewart Iverson.

The prospect of a well-known, well-financed candidate to run against the incumbents is welcome news to some in the parties but an annoyance to others.

"There are some Iowans who are going to wait to see what happens before they engage in the governor's race on the Republican side, or in the Senate race on the Democratic side," said Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, a Democrat from Council Bluffs.

Branstad's highly public wavering about whether to challenge Democratic Gov. Chet Culver has received the most attention. A group has formed to encourage him to run, airing radio ads, creating a Facebook page and sending out daily Twitter messages.

Branstad, president of Des Moines University, initially brushed off the suggestion that he run but during the summer said he'd consider it and would decide by the fall. He didn't return a call Tuesday to his office.

Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford said the attention being given to Branstad damages the standing of the six others who are either in the race or leaning toward a run because it indicates that Republicans have little confidence in their field.

"It suggests they don't think very well about the political standing of the announced candidates," Goldford said.

Those who are running or have made clear they are leaning toward it include Sioux City businessman Bob Vander Plaats; Cedar Rapids businessman Christian Fong; state Reps. Christopher Rants of Sioux City and Rod Roberts of Carroll; and state Sens. Jerry Behn of Boone and Paul McKinley of Chariton.

Rants has expressed irritation about the drawn-out Branstad question. Rants and other candidates also have pointed out that as governor, Branstad agreed to two increases in the sales tax and a higher gasoline tax.

"I can't do anything about it, so I keep plowing ahead and keep carving out our niche," Rants said. "If he decides to get in we'll be talking about the future. If he decides to get in, he better be prepared to talk about new ideas."

The Senate race has been even odder, with Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Michael Kiernan stating repeatedly that a big-name candidate will emerge to oppose Grassley.

"I'm going to tell you that Chuck Grassley will be in for the race of his life, that 2010 will be a tough race and that person will announce," Kiernan said.

And the name?

"You're just going to have to wait to find out," he said.

When pressed, he says the name will come out soon. He's been saying that since midsummer.

That hasn't sat well with the two Democrats _ former state legislators Bob Krause and Tom Fiegen _ who have announced they'll seek their party's nomination.

"The act of promoting the idea that there is a mystery candidate that no one can know about _ except equally mysterious rumormongers _ smacks of a throwback to the era of the kingmakers," Krause said.

It's also prompted grumbling within the party by strategists who said the speculation has done nothing but widen Grassley's already formidable fundraising advantage. At a time when a Des Moines Register poll shows Grassley's approval ratings dipping from 75 percent in January to 57 percent in September, the strategists note that instead of focusing on the candidates challenging Grassley, th talk has been about those who have taken themselves out of the running, including former Principal Financial Group CEO Barry Griswell and U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley.

Unless the Democrats produce a jaw-dropping name, Goldford said, the rumors could permanently damage the party's eventual nominee.

"It actually seems to be a disservice to the party," said Goldford. "It was cute at first, but there comes a point when you either have to put up or shut up."

Republican strategist Bob Haus said he'll be surprised if a big-name candidate exists.

"Maybe it's Halloween, but I just don't see who this mystery candidate it," said Haus. "I don't think he's got a name and I don't think it's going to materialize."

Others argue that there's plenty of time left in both races for new candidates to emerge.

"I don't hear anybody out there clamoring for a longer election season," said Democratic strategist Matt Paul.

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