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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For the first time in 30 years, Iowa will elect a new U.S. Senator this year. Five-term Democrat Tom Harkin is retiring. For a time, this was a seat the Democrats didn't think they needed to worry about. Congressman Bruce Braley was considered the favorite to win the seat in November, but thanks to a serious gaffe, the seat appears to be in play and five Republican hopefuls, none well known statewide, are all racing toward the June primary.

Here's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: This is what the Iowa GOP Senate race looks like four weeks before primary day.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, it doesn't feel too much like spring, does it? Maybe early spring. Good to see you, thank you. How you doing?

GONYEA: Candidate Mark Jacobs works the basement community room at the Harlan Public Library in western Iowa. About a dozen people showed up. It's 4:30 p.m.

MARK JACOBS: I thought what I might do is take a couple minutes, tell you a little bit about myself. Most important thing to know about me is that I'm a business guy. I've never run for any elected office before. Never held any office before, been concerned about...

GONYEA: Jacobs made his name as CEO of Texas-based Reliant Energy. Now he's back in his native Iowa. He is wealthy and able to pay the tab for much of his campaign, though he recently caused controversy when a network TV reporter asked if he would forego his salary if elected. He responded that U.S. senators don't make that much money. He's since said he misunderstood the question.

Still, polls suggest Jacobs is one of the top two contenders. The other is State Senator Joni Ernst, who has tackled the name recognition problem with attention-getting TV ads. You may have heard this one:

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV AD)

STATE SENATOR JONI ERNST: I'm Joni Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington I'll know how to cut pork.

GONYEA: Ernst has some high-profile endorsements, including from Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin. And her newest ad is downright Palin-esque. The candidate, in a leather jacket, rumbles up to a shooting range on a Harley.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And once she sets her sights on Obamacare, Joni's going to unload.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

GONYEA: Rounding out the field are economics professor and talk radio host Sam Clovis, who's appealing to Tea Party and evangelical voters. There's Scott Schaben, a car salesman and former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker, whose ads highlight his time as a University of Iowa football player.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FOOTBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...in the end zone. It's a touchdown. And it is Matt Whitaker.

GONYEA: Democrats, meanwhile, have just one candidate: Congressman Bruce Braley. But that hasn't meant a lack of drama. Just over a month ago, Braley was speaking at a private fundraiser when he warned about a GOP takeover of the Senate and said this about Iowa's popular longtime Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, who is not up for re-election this year.

REPRESENTATIVE BRUCE BRALEY: You might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

GONYEA: Dennis Goldford is a professor at Drake University.

DENNIS GOLDFORD: It suggested the insult to farmers and agriculture. It suggested that he was interested in going to Washington to protect the interests, not of Iowans, but of trial lawyers. So he shot himself in both feet with a major caliber weapon.

GONYEA: To try to set things right, the Braley campaign is running this TV ad.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV AD)

BRALEY: When I got to junior high, I started doing a lot of farm work. I would play football games on Friday nights and then go over to the elevator and dry corn all night long. I worked on a bridge crew...

GONYEA: Braley remains ahead in early polls, but Republicans now see the race as much more winnable. Iowa is an evenly divided state politically and if it lacks the diversity of some other big battleground states, Drake's Dennis Goldford says there are factions and real geographic differences.

GOLDFORD: Northern Iowa has more of a Scandinavian heritage, which has more of a liberal or progressive dimension to it. Northwestern Iowa, southeastern Iowa have more of a Dutch reformed heritage, which is more the social and religious conservative side of things.

GONYEA: He then adds with a smile...

GOLDFORD: You stir it all together and it's as spicy as beef and noodles.

GONYEA: Hey, it's a favorite dish among Iowans. Primary day is June 3. After that, the main meal will commence.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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