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Race to the Ranch

Iowa pizza chain is a must-stop for GOP presidential candidates on the campaign trail

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GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee talks to a crowd at the Pizza Ranch in Jefferson, Iowa. Photo: Lars Gesing/CU News Corps

GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee talks to a crowd at the Pizza Ranch in Jefferson, Iowa. Photo: Lars Gesing/CU News Corps

GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee talks to a crowd at the Pizza Ranch in Jefferson, Iowa. Photo: Lars Gesing/CU News Corps

Lars Gesing, CU News Corps Assistant Director

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Logo final_highJEFFERSON, Iowa – While you are munching on some $8.75 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet at one of Iowa’s signature Pizza Ranch restaurants these days, it is not unlikely that a member of the Republican presidential contender cadre will walk into the door to have a chat with you.

And chances are that candidate will be Mike Huckabee.

The winner of the 2008 Iowa caucus is widely credited with creating the “Pizza Ranch Strategy,” a tour of the pizza parlor’s 70 plus branches across mostly small-town communities all over the state.

The playbook is easy: What better way for cash-strapped campaigns to really dig into the retail electioneering necessary to win over the hearts and minds of Iowa’s GOP caucus-goers than to meet them, eye-to-eye, where their hearts and minds often mingle?

So when Huckabee came to Iowa last week for his latest visit, he tabbed into the voter pool of the Pizza Ranch republic once again. Under the watchful eye of a framed John Wayne likeness, in front of a giant covered-wagon mural, Huckabee tried to woo the roughly 70 politely-listening potential supporters here in Jefferson, an hour and a myriad of crops north of Des Moines, with his social conservative allure.

“I plan to go to all 99 counties and not just to see what the menu is like at all those Pizza Ranches,” he joked.

Huckabee talks to a local reporter outside the Jefferson Pizza Ranch. Photo: Lars Gesing/CU News Corps

Huckabee talks to a local reporter outside the Jefferson Pizza Ranch. Photo: Lars Gesing/CU News Corps

In the earliest of primary states people expect to shake the hand of the next leader of the free world before trusting the applicant with their vote. Holding informal Q&A forums with the scent of pizza and fried chicken wavering through the air might just do the trick to enshroud the candidates in such a man-of-the-people aura.

“There are a lot of small towns around Iowa that have Pizza Ranches, and they are gathering places,” said Rob Schultz, the owner of the Jefferson store. “It started out years ago when Pizza Ranch was growing. Their focus was on going into smaller communities, such as Jefferson, and putting a restaurant in there.”

Eric Woolson, a veteran Iowa campaign operative who led Huckabee’s efforts in the state in 2008 (he signed on with team Scott Walker this year), helped come up with the strategy that is by now an Iowa axiom, or joke – depending on your side of the aisle.

“The Pizza Ranch strategy just came about after I realized how simple it made things, especially at a time when I was the only campaign employee here in Iowa for Gov. Huckabee,” Woolson said. “The room was a good size for a candidate like Gov. Huckabee, who was just becoming known to Iowans — so whether we had eight or 48 people, the room was a right-sized venue. After a while, of course, it became a Huckabee campaign trademark.”

The Pizza Ranch strategy has its perks for both sides of the agreement. Candidates get an easy-to-book venue crammed with imagery of the good ol’ days of cowboys, God, guns – and pizza. The chain’s Christian vision statement, “To glorify God by positively impacting the world,” adds nicely to Huckabee, Santorum & Co’s gospel of social conservatism.

In return, the store owners, such as Jefferson’s Rob Schultz, get good business when candidates bring in crowds that fill up the solid wooden benches and hastily-rearranged tables on what would have otherwise been a sleepy mid-summer Thursday afternoon.

“We probably made double of what we would usually make during lunch hour on a Thursday,” Schultz said after Huckabee’s appearance last week, contently quantifying a successful afternoon.

For the candidate, of course, that final tally won’t be in for another five months.

***

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Race to the Ranch