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Pizza Ranch: Fueling Campaigns On Cheese And Chicken

Many of the Republican presidential candidates have a hefty goal in Iowa ahead of its first-in-nation caucuses: make a campaign stop in all of the state's 99 counties. Along the way, presidential hopefuls are turning to the Iowa-based restaurant chain Pizza Ranch, whose ubiquity and inexpensive cuisine have made it a staple of the caucus campaign trail.

At a recent stop at one of Iowa's newest Pizza Ranches, located in Fort Dodge in the central part of the state, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry shook hands and braved a scrum of reporters and local Republicans while the lunchtime crowd worked its way through the buffet line.

While Pizza Ranch doesn't endorse candidates, restaurant employees are only too happy to tell you about what's on the menu.

"We got the best chicken in town. We have very, very good pizzas ... a very wide variety of pizzas," said Kim Worden, the restaurant's assistant manager.

The chain was founded in 1981 and now has more than 180 locations across the Midwest and Plains states. It's particularly popular with Republican presidential candidates — perhaps because Pizza Ranch's vision statement is "to glorify God by positively impacting the world."

It was 2008 Republican caucus winner and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee who first used Pizza Ranch as a campaign stop — he's now making the restaurants part of his 2016 bid for the White House.

At a recent Pizza Ranch stop in the central Iowa town of Jefferson, Huckabee spoke to a group of potential voters in front of a large mural of a family in a covered wagon and a cowboy riding a horse.

"When I visit all 99 counties, I'm not going just because I want to see what the menu is at the Pizza Ranch at every place, although we do love these places, but it's really to answer your questions," said Huckabee.

The mastermind behind the Pizza Ranch campaign strategy is Eric Woolson, who was Huckabee's 2008 Iowa campaign director. He said the chain's conservative Christian values had nothing to do with his decision to hold events there — it was just a cheap and easy place to book.

"They're very accommodating to folks. I think it was a $25 deposit to reserve it and I think also if you bought one pizza you were able to get your deposit back," said Woolson. "It was just one of those rooms where whether you had six people or 46 people it was just the right size room where the press wouldn't come in and say gosh, where is everybody?"

Woolson now works for the campaign of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who hasn't yet held any events at a Pizza Ranch. Democrats have also used the chain as a campaign stop in the past — though none have held events there so far in this election cycle.

At the Fort Dodge Pizza Ranch, may of the locals watched the media circus around Perry with amusement.

"You never know who you're going to meet," said assistant manager Worden.

Among these heating lamps and sneeze guards, you could just meet the next president.

Copyright 2015 Iowa Public Radio

Clay Masters