SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Iowans are nice. Conservative voters appreciate toughness. Compassion is part of Christianity. Accountability and personal responsibility are central to the conservative Christian worldview.
Marco Rubio's campaign is largely an effort to balance these often-conflicting ideas: toughness and compasion.
Rubio's stump speech in the final days before the caucuses is heavy on both. He introduces the compassion angle often as a way to contrast himself with Iowa front-runners Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Rubio is currently third on the Washington Examiner's presidential power rankings, while Cruz and Trump are second and first, respectively.
"I do think it's important for people to think conservatives care about them," Rubio said when asked how he would reach out to young voters. "Because the Left goes to people and says, 'if you're a single mother, if you're disabled, if you're alone, if you're a young American, conservatives don't care about you. They only care about people that make a lot of money.'"
"That's a lie," Rubio maintains. "The way we're going to show people we do care is we're going to talk about their challenges, and we're going to describe how we're going to help them help themselves — to fix these problems through limited government and free enterprise instead of more taxes, more government, more regulation, more spending..."
Rubio is good at feeling the pain of ordinary Americans. The first two questions at Sioux City were about compassion — for those with autism, and for those with mental-health difficulties. Rubio dwelt on the difficulties of people with autism and those raising them. He worked in Florida to expand opportunities and help for such families. He ended his answer by saying, "My heart breaks for the people who grew up in a different era."
Kevin Van Otterloo is the mayor of Rock Valley, Iowa. Van Otterloo has a grandchild with autism, and he appreciated Rubio's answer on the matter. He's 100 percent behind Rubio.
He describes Rubio as "a real American." (Not as a reference to Cruz's Canadian birth, but in a Joe-Sixpack way.) "He doesn't live in a tower," Van Otterloo says.
Rock Valley, Iowa, is 55 percent Dutch. The Reformed Church dominates the town as it does most of Sioux County. Rubio, Van Otterloo says, "fits the mold" of Dutch Country: "conservative, helping people." He daughter, Kris Gesink, appreciates Rubio's story as an immigrant who has experienced working-class struggles: "He's had a lot of struggles in his life."
But Rubio needs to play tough guy as well. When a libertarian-leaning audience member asked him about due process for U.S. citizens aligning with the Islamic State, Rubio cut him off firmly but politely. "We need to treat them for what they are — they are enemy combatants."
This tough talk seemed to get more enthusiastic applause from the GOP crowd. Rubio got laughs in mocking the notion that colleges today might have a "vice president of student feelings."
On immigration, his rhetoric is all about striking the balance. "It is not anti-immigrant to say we're going to enforce our laws on immigration," Rubio says. "We are the most generous country in the world on immigration. America accepts a million immigrants a year… No other country comes close to that."
Gabriella Magaña is an immigrant from Mexico and a teacher at Irving Elementary School. After Rubio's event, she told me she is leaning towards Rubio, and considering Bush. Mostly, she wants a pro-life Catholic candidate. She describes Trump as "too aggressive." She likes that Rubio wants to enforce immigration laws more strictly. "I believe in compassion, but I also believe in accountability."
Iowa Nice and Iowa Conservative requires a balancing act. Rubio sometimes struggles to hit the balance, but he seems to do better than Cruz in this regard.
LeAnn Friedenbach and her husband Daryl are also split between Rubio and Bush. LeAnn says she dislikes Trump and Cruz because they are set on "dividing the country." Her husband, Daryl, agrees that Cruz's "tone seems to be more divisive."
Rubio hopes to rise above that. "When I am president of the United States," he says, "I will never divide you against other Americans."
Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.