Republican activists in this key presidential state have a dark, foreboding feeling that America is in decline. They believe the nation is hurtling in the wrong direction, and worse, on the brink of losing its unique place in the world.
That sentiment is hardly new to American politics, but it's one that's been reanimated by the presidency of Barack Obama. Some see him as hostile to the notion of American exceptionalism. Others simply don't believe he's an American at all.
Together, it's fueling the rise of an emerging debate on the right that could overshadow the traditional focus on social and fiscal issues and create an opening for a candidate who can speak to a still inchoate but clearly volatile element that is roiling the conservative grassroots.
It's not that culture wars and tax revolts are about to be displaced in GOP presidential politics by an abstract discussion on what ails Uncle Sam. Rather, the very issues that have typically energized GOP primary voters—such as abortion, faith, gay marriage, debt, military power—are being subsumed into a larger debate about a country in decline.
It's the idea, held by many conservative activists, that America is becoming too European—weak, feckless and faithless—a spendthrift nation in hock to China and led by an irresolute president who is accelerating the process, either by design or effect.
"Economically we are not the nation we once were and we may be overextended in foreign commitments," explained Thomas Eller, a retired attorney who attended a GOP luncheon featuring former Sen. Rick Santorum at a local café in this western Iowa town last week. "It's a very difficult time. We cannot continue our slide."
Asked to sum up what worried him most, Eller said: "The decline of the United States."
This widespread lament over the loss of the nation they once knew is already provoking a response from GOP presidential prospects. The candidates are tailoring their rhetoric to tap into a fear that is apocalyptic in tone, expressed by a base that is gripped by a sense of deep disappointment with the national GOP and worry over a Democratic president they see as intent on making America more like France.
From Tea Party luminary Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) to establishment favorite Mitt Romney, the GOP hopefuls are all vying to respond to the mix of fear and outrage coursing through the right.
"There is doubt in the minds of Americans that we will continue as this great, exceptional nation," said Bachmann in her debut appearance last month in Iowa, warning against the path of "managed decline."
Romney, who titled his book "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness," has responded to the alarm about the nation's future with an appeal tuned to tea party frequencies.
While the former Massachusetts governor is viewed with suspicion by some on the right because of his state's healthcare law, he now often ends his speeches with a tribute to his father, who rose from a modest background to become a governor and automobile CEO—the classic American success story.
"For my Dad, America was the land of opportunity, where the circumstances of birth are no barrier to achieving one's dreams," Romney said in a high-profile New Hampshire speech earlier this month.
He added: "The spirit of enterprise, innovation, pioneering and derring-do propelled our standard of living and economy past every other nation on earth. I refuse to believe that America is just another place on the map with a flag."
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has also gotten into the America-on-the-wane act with a pithy line he's added to his stump speech.
"Just because we followed Greece into democracy doesn't mean we need to follow them into bankruptcy," Pawlenty said at a presidential candidate forum last week in Waukee, just outside of Des Moines.
And Herman Cain, the former Godfather's Pizza CEO, got a rousing ovation at the same event with what has become his signature closing line.
"The United States of America is not going to become the Unites States of Europe!" Cain thundered, "Not on our watch."
Likely GOP caucus-goers, of course, direct much of their venom at Obama. But they also want it known that they're skeptical of the entire political class and intend to press the Republican candidates as they trek through the state this year.
"You cannot continue to spend the way he's been spending," said Connie Noreen, a GOP activist in Sioux City who attended a Woodbury County GOP dinner last week. "We have our entire government that is just out of control."
Noreen, speaking as she cleaned up after appearances by Santorum and Cain, continued: "When you come to these meetings, watch how these people press in and really ask for information. They're not going to take them at face value anymore."
Matt Strawn, the Iowa Republican chairman, said his often fractious state party is of one mind on the America-at-risk issue, with many viewing 2012 as an historically pivotal election.
"One common refrain I'm hearing from Republicans is there will be a greater sense of deliberation because they understand, having seen four years of an Obama administration, now they tangibly understand what that means to America and that we can't have four more years," he said.
Nancy Bielenberg, a local Republican activist who helped organize the Denison lunch, fretted about the future of America along the current course.
"The debt," Bielenberg said, when asked what was foremost in her mind, "The debt that our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going to assume and the long-term effects of that debt on us as a world power."
The danger for Republican candidates is that some conservative activists will demand expressions of contempt for Obama that, while playing well in some quarters on the right, won't help the party with the political center.
An element of the GOP base doesn't just dislike the president – they think he's illegitimate and intent on harming the country.
"Do you think we're going to make it to 2012?" asked Cecelia Patterson, a Republican activist at the Sioux City dinner. "Do you think the United States is still going to be intact in 2012? He could put the whole country down the tubes by 2012."
After praising Cain's speech at the candidate cattle call in Waukee, Sue Brown, a Republican activist from Greene County observed that, "He'd be our first black American president."
Asked about Obama, Brown responded: "He hasn't proven to me that he's an American yet."
She cited her questions over the president's place of birth before changing the topic to "the things that he's standing for."
"We've got 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren and I want them to have a country they can be proud of and stand up and say 'God Bless America' and not be looked down upon," continued Brown.
As for the most important issues facing the country, Brown had a ready answer.
"Family and our standing around the world," she said, before deciding on another way of articulating what bothers her so much at the moment. "He apologizes for things I don't think we should apologize for."