DES MOINES - Gov. Terry Branstad may be running for re-election, but his current focus is on the legislative session, not campaign rhetoric.
Since lawmakers returned to the Iowa Capitol in January, the Republican Branstad has largely kept his attention on his legislative agenda and budget plan, which must be approved this spring by the divided General Assembly. Even Branstad's balloon-festooned re-election announcement in last month was light on detailed campaign promises.
"I think if that is a strategy, yes the legislative session is the number one priority," said Chuck Laudner, former executive director of the state GOP. "As soon as that's done, it's campaign season. The starting gun will go off."
For now, Branstad is keeping his eye on a modest set of legislative priorities - increasing benefits for veterans, combatting bullying and adding broadband Internet around the state. All three goals have support in the Republican-majority House and the Democratic-controlled Senate.
"Once session is over, we will outline our vision for 2014 and beyond," said Branstad's campaign manager Jake Ketzner.
Branstad, 67, announced last month that he'd run for an unprecedented sixth nonconsecutive term. The veteran politician had more than $4 million in his campaign account at the end of 2013, enjoys solid approval ratings and can boast of recent tax cuts and education investments. During his announcement, he spoke generally about leading the state into the future.
Reasons for not unveiling a campaign agenda are clear. Branstad's current legislative efforts would be overshadowed by a more ambitious sixth-term platform. He could run the risk of offending or alienating Democrats if he started to lobby the public on a more conservative agenda now. And it's not clear that the electorate would even pay much attention, especially since Branstad has no viable primary opponent and the Democratic field also appears to be set, with state Sen. Jack Hatch, of Des Moines, in the leading position.
"I think there are so many people that are quite honestly thankful that we're not in full campaign mode right now," said Will Rogers, chairman of the Polk County Republicans, noting there are other competitive races for Republicans in the primary. "Most people's attention, it's about the Senate race and the congressional races."
Branstad is the heavy favorite in the race, given his funding, policy record and his reputation as a tireless campaigner. In comparison, Hatch is dealing with weak name recognition throughout the state and limited funding. Most view the contest as Branstad's to lose.
Still, the governor will have to lay out a vision for his next term and for the state in the coming months, said longtime adviser Doug Gross.
"It needs to be new. It needs to be fresh. You've got to look to the future," said Gross. "You run for what you're going to do. I think Iowans are going to be interested in that."
A sixth-term agenda is likely to include a continuation of some of Branstad's top priorities, including education and economic development. A pitch for another tax cut is a possibility, as are more education and job-training efforts. Once the session is over, Branstad may also talk more about other GOP candidates and the effort to regain Republican control of the state Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow majority.
"We're going to work to get as many Republicans elected as we can in November," said Ketzner.
Gross said Branstad will be highly visible throughout Iowa once he shifts into campaign mode.
"He's awesome at it, a great retail politician," Gross said. "He loves to campaign, loves to be with Iowans."