ALTOONA, Iowa (DTN) -- Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad called out Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz for his so-called anti-ethanol positions, while fellow Republican Donald Trump told a packed house at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit Tuesday that he would support and defend the Renewable Fuels Standard as president.
Pundits who may question ethanol's prominence in presidential politics would need only to spend a day at the IRFA summit -- Trump headlined a speaker lineup that included presidential candidates Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also attended the event.
"The RFS is an important tool in the mission to achieve energy independence in the U.S.," Trump told the largely pro-biofuels crowd. "I will do everything as president to reach that goal. As president I would end regulations from keeping higher blends from being sold."
Trump took a swipe at the EPA adjustments to mandated RFS volumes, saying the country could be farther down the road to energy independence had the original law been left untouched.
"What's going on with ethanol and biofuels, we could have been there a long time ago," Trump said.
The self-made billionaire said unlike other candidates he would not be beholden to special interests such as the oil industry.
"I'm not asking you biofuels people 'give me your money,'" Trump said. "I do what's right. When I want to go with ethanol I go with ethanol. I'm going to do what's right for the country ... You're going to get a really fair shake from me."
Trump said he became convinced of the merits of biofuels following a recent visit to ethanol plants in Iowa.
"These people wanted me to see more plants and I said I don't need to," he said. "You convinced me."
Trump and Cruz have been neck and neck for the top spot in the Republican Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1, according to public opinion polls and are considered to be favorites to win the state. Cruz wasn't invited to the annual summit because he has said he would do away with the RFS if he became president. Earlier this month, Cruz told Iowans at town-hall meetings he would keep the RFS but create a "five-year phaseout." Branstad sent a ripple across the Iowa GOP and presidential campaign Tuesday by publicly declaring a Cruz presidency would hurt Iowa's ethanol industry.
Fiorina, another GOP presidential candidate, pointed to EPA's actions on the RFS -- as well as the waters of the United States rule tied up in court -- as examples of government run amok. "What's going on with the Renewable Fuel Standard is an example of what's wrong with our government," said the former Hewlett Packard CEO.
"I believe the people of America are being told to sit down and be quiet. I don't think we can do that anymore. We can't settle for a government that no longer works for us. Think about what's really happened with the Renewable Fuel Standard. Politicians got pressured by the oil industry. EPA became the vehicle that changed that contract. We can no longer settle for a nation where a government makes a deal with you and doesn't keep it."
CHALLENGING TRUMP'S POLICY POSITIONS
Fiorina challenged Trump's trade positions, as well as claims that he isn't politically beholden to special interests. Fiorina said Trump has "made billions sitting outside the system and buying influence in the system."
On issues of trade, Fiorina said Trump's idea of a 40% tariff on products imported into the United States from China "isn't going to help you."
While Fiorina said she supports expanding trade for agricultural commodities, she has concerns about the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement awaiting approval from Congress.
"When you're able to compete on a fair playing field, you win," Fiorina said. "When all is said and done, more trade is better than less. I'd feel a whole lot better knowing what's in it (TPP). We win when we get to trade."
Fellow presidential candidate Rick Santorum threw a political Hail Mary of sorts with the hope of regaining the magic that led him to a 2012 Iowa Caucus win. He told the Iowa crowd he voted for the RFS when he was senator and hasn't wavered in his support of biofuels. However, most public opinion polls in Iowa show Santorum has very little traction at the moment.
"Seems like the more experience you have, the lower your poll numbers," Santorum said. "I know you're angry. It's your country. How many candidates have a record you can trust? I understand you're frustrated. You sent folks to Washington who didn't do what they said they will do. If Iowa isn't going to stand up for the RFS, who's going to?
"If you stand behind the candidate you know you can trust, then you show something Washington doesn't think you have. You want to show some muscle. There's only one candidate you should vote for. You make a statement that we want someone we can trust. You have been given great responsibility and great power. Use it wisely."
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, another GOP candidate who has lost some shine from 2012, also took a swipe at Cruz's opposition to the RFS and at other candidates who are spending time in Iowa but don't know much about agriculture.
"A lot of people in America don't appreciate the value of agriculture," Huckabee said. "There is a clear divide between urban and rural. People are not appreciating what agriculture does."
Huckabee said the RFS is one of few times when a government policy that sets mandates has worked.
"The program actually worked," he said. "It's rare when the government comes up with a mandate that works, but this does. It has given agriculture a marketplace. Maybe we ought to get rid of the candidates that don't have a clue about agriculture."
Leading up to the Iowa caucuses, Huckabee said he believes Iowans will support the candidates they trust on issues affecting agriculture and ethanol.
"They're not going to vote for someone who will cost them 75,000 jobs" in the biofuels industry, he said. "I said these things that I said eight years ago. You're not going to find something that will shock you. I've been vetted."
Earlier in the day, Vilsack, a former Democratic governor of Iowa, said farmers and ethanol producers should question presidential candidates on specifics such as where they stand on blender pumps, E15 and other issues.
"They'll come prepared to talk about the RFS, at least most of them," he said. "Some will try to change their positions. If they can talk about these things, then you've got something."
Todd Neeley can be reached at email@example.com
Follow him on Twitter @ToddNeeleyDTN
© Copyright 2016 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.