Jan Mickelson

Jan Mickelson, the leading conservative radio personality in Iowa, talks with a caller during his show. (Steve Pope / for the times / August 23, 2007)

Jan Mickelson wouldn't budge. His friendly chat with Mitt Romney had veered into a discussion of abortion and Mormonism, and the Republican presidential hopeful -- eyes wide, arms waving -- was clearly annoyed.

"Let me once again say I understand my faith better than you do," Romney snapped.

"Well, I'm not sure," Mickelson replied, and the two went back at it, Romney angry and sarcastic, Mickelson polite but persistent.

Every weekday morning, from 9 to 11:30, Mickelson presides over the No. 1 talk-radio show in Iowa, giving him more sway over national politics than perhaps all but the biggest names in the broadcast business.

Most Iowans live in cities. However, there is plenty of space in between -- long stretches of interstate, endless acres of corn and soybeans -- where the radio offers a welcome companion. From his perch here in the studios of WHO-AM (1040), Mickelson reaches about 350,000 Iowans a week, twice the audience of his closest competition. That may be a pittance by big-city standards. But for a Republican campaigning in Iowa, which traditionally holds the first vote of the presidential race, the program is a must-stop -- and a pathway strewed with hidden perils.

"I wouldn't suggest that Jan is a kingmaker," said Steve Grubbs, a pollster and former chairman of the state GOP, who found nearly two-thirds of Iowa Republicans listen to talk radio. "But I would suggest he has the avenue you need to become king."

There is no mistaking the program's rightward tilt: Christianity, small government, free markets and sealed borders are good. Islam, teachers unions, the welfare state and the gay-rights movement are bad. But the host, a registered independent and self-described "Christian libertarian," is just as apt to fault President Bush ("very disappointing") and criticize former Massachusetts Gov. Romney for changing sides on abortion ("He's taken a pro-life position, but he's not a pro-lifer") as he is to lampoon liberals ("I emote, therefore I am").

Which makes "Mickelson in the Morning" -- his name is pronounced Michaelson -- a somewhat unlikely Republican redoubt. Any GOP candidate who shows up in Des Moines expecting a coddling from a fellow conservative is likely to be disappointed.

Mickelson prides himself on shunning the party talking points that many radio hosts treat as holy writ. He is set in certain beliefs -- a main one being a strict reading of the Constitution and its limits -- and the more Mickelson likes, or wants to like, a candidate, the tougher the grilling is likely to be. His studio dust-up with Romney involved the Mormon Church's opposition to abortion and Romney's past support for abortion rights. A video of their Aug. 2 confrontation has been downloaded nearly 200,000 times.

"Because I'm ideological, my instinct is to wrap myself around the purest candidates," Mickelson said in one of several off-air conversations. "And that's always a frustration, because none of them are."

Of the current crop, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani impresses Mickelson with his clear-eyed approach to fighting terrorism. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, with his doggedness and good humor, is another favorite. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas probably comes closest to Mickelson's antiabortion, limited-government philosophy, but "he's not going to be a player this election cycle," Mickelson says.

No worries. Mickelson, 58, is used to being a man without a candidate. "I'm disenfranchised most of the time," he said, which, happily, leaves plenty of room for discussion. For above all, Mickelson loves to argue -- almost always politely, which is the Iowa way.

It is a passion that took him from a job sorting pig carcasses to a salary in the low six figures and a position as one of the most important political gatekeepers in Iowa.

Mickelson's father was a meat-cutter who moved his wife and three children -- Jan, a younger brother and a younger sister -- countless times, as jobs required. Harlan, in southwestern Iowa near the Nebraska border, is where the family stayed longest, living in an unheated farmhouse on the edge of town.

After graduating from high school in 1967, Mickelson followed his father into the local pork plant, where he handled 5,000 hogs a day, sorting them by weight and grade. He worked alone, in a freezer, and to kill time he alternately sang and argued with himself, up one side an issue and down the other. The arguing proved good training for talk radio.

Mickelson grew up listening to WHO, an Iowa institution, where a young Ronald Reagan got his start in broadcasting.

Mickelson was a Paul Harvey fan; together, they shared lunch hours at the plant, Harvey's conservative commentary pouring from the dashboard of Mickelson's hand-me-down Dodge. Today, Mickelson honors Harvey by drinking a morning cup of Kava instant coffee, one of his hero's sponsors. "Terrible stuff," Mickelson says. "But Paul Harvey could sell me dirt."

It was a few years later, while living in Minnesota, that Mickelson first thought of a radio career. By then he was married; Mickelson met his wife in speech class at a small Baptist college in Wisconsin. (The couple celebrated their 37th anniversary in June.) One day, while Mickelson was working at a gas station in St. Paul, a customer mentioned he was going to broadcasting school in Minneapolis. "The light bulb went on," Mickelson said.

He earned his degree and began a succession of radio jobs -- broken up by a few years of teaching private school -- moving from small markets in Wisconsin to Columbia, S.C., then Cincinnati.