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As Iowa's caucuses loom, conservative Republicans look for a leader

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Mark Lundberg
Sioux County GOP Chairman Mark Lundberg. His turf is some of the most conservative in the country.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Orange City has a European look. Most of the businesses boast Dutch architectural elements, even the dollar store and car wash.

Holiday music wafts from outdoor speakers throughout its spotless downtown. Scores of Christmas wreaths, garland and golden crosses hang from street lamps. It's an idyllic scene.

And it's not just a facade. Orange City is in great shape compared to most places around the country. People who want jobs here have them. Unemployment is at about 3 percent thanks to a strong agricultural economy and several healthy local manufacturing businesses.

From behind his desk at his downtown financial planning office, Sioux County Republican Party Chairman Mark Lundberg said conservative values are behind the good life in Orange City.

"Our society up here is one based on hard work. You get rewarded for your hard work and you just stay within your means," he said. "And if our country would follow that same rationale, we wouldn't have the problems we have."

Lundberg's turf is some of the most conservative in the country. In the last statewide election the Republican candidate for governor got more than eight times as many votes as the Democrat here.

Lundberg said there's a lot of interest in next year's presidential election, but also a lot of indecision. He estimated that about half of those likely to turn out to the GOP caucuses in Sioux County still don't know who they will support, and he's heard from them more than in other years.

Downtown Orange City, Iowa
Orange City, Iowa's Dutch and conservative Christian influence are on display downtown on the Chamber of Commerce building.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"Calling me up and seeing me at the coffee shops or at business functions. We're seeing a lot more conversation among people and a lot more just trying to figure out, well-- what are we going to do?" he said.

His observation appears to be borne out by a Des Moines Register poll in late November that found fewer than one in three likely Iowa Republican caucus goers had made a final decision on a candidate. More than half -- 60 percent -- said they could be persuaded to support someone other than their first choice. Eleven percent said they have no first choice.

Among those undecided caucus goers is Jeff Vander Voort, 46. The Orange City resident said he's a bit surprised by his indecisiveness.

"I always find it ridiculous that there's an undecided voter in a general election," he said.

Jeff Vander Voort
Iowa caucus goer Jeff Vander Voort, of Orange City, says one of the reasons he's been unable to settle on a GOP candidate is that he's weighing principle and electability.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Vander Voort is married with four children. He's an evangelical Christian. He sells veterinary supplies to farmers and holds up Ronald Reagan as a model American. Vander Voort thinks the country is entrenched in what he describes as a "cultural civil war." To him the issues are fundamental and go way beyond taxes or foreign affairs.

"On one end I see accountability and responsibility, the opposite end of that spectrum, being that of entitlement. I think we have an alarming trend where more and more people want someone else to take the responsibility," he said.

Vander Voort supported former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in the 2008 Iowa caucuses. As he tries to decide who to back this time, he said he's getting a lot of telephone calls and mailings from the campaigns. 

He was excited about Rick Perry's prospects until Perry's debate stumbles, but he's not yet writing off the Texas governor. He said Michele Bachmann , Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman never caught his attention.

He likes a lot of what Ron Paul has to say about reducing the reach of government. And he was disappointed Herman Cain had to leave the race.

Newt Gingrich, who's enjoying a surge in the polls? The former House Speaker might have too much baggage, Vander Voort said. 

But while said he initially dismissed Mitt Romney, he's taking another look at the businessman and former Massachusetts governor. 

"Mitt didn't seem to me to be as credentialed of a conservative as what I would have liked but I find myself more and more thinking that the man is proven in many respects," Vander Voort said.

Vander Voort saidone of the reasons he's been unable to settle on a candidate is he's weighing principle and electability. Unlike many Republicans, Vander Voort is not convinced President Obama is all but certain to be defeated next year. He thinks the GOP needs a strong candidate to be successful, someone with proven leadership experience.

"I think that is a glaring weakness of President Obama's and it's something that, I don't want just a little bit better than President Obama's," he said. "I really want, like I said, someone with the experience and the wisdom that only time making decisions under a wide variety of circumstances, can bring about in a person." 

Vander Voort said he could very well walk into the high school a few blocks from his house on caucus night undecided, even though he knows he will cast a ballot for one of the Republicans on Jan. 3.