Not long ago, Iowa's Terry Branstad gained distinction as the longest-serving governor in U.S. history, pushing past the 20-year, 11-month mark with two years still remaining in his record-setting sixth term.
To call him an Iowa institution is a bit like saying they grow a lot of corn in the countryside, or that it gets cold in the winter.
Part of Branstad's appeal is a studious anti-charisma. He is a dull speaker, conservative in a mainstream Republican manner and, while personally gracious, not the least bit dynamic. Think pressed turkey and mayonnaise on white bread.
He is dutiful, though, earnest to a fault and a constant presence in the lives of Iowans; Branstad will show up at the opening of envelope, however remote the occasion, and stay until they stack the chairs and kill the lights.
So it was a bit surprising Monday when the typically reserved Branstad lent credence to the inflammatory question of whether Ted Cruz, the Texas senator and co-front-runner in Iowa's Feb. 1 caucuses, is eligible to serve as president.
The trolling Donald Trump, who is battling Cruz for first place in Iowa, raised the issue last week, noting the senator was born in Calgary, Canada. Legal experts were quick to vouch for Cruz, saying he meets the constitutional eligibility test because his Delaware-born mother was a U.S. citizen, thus automatically conferring the same status on her son.
But speaking to reporters Monday in Des Moines at his weekly Capitol press briefing, Branstad said the question of Cruz's citizenship was "fair game."
"When you run for president of the United States, any question is fair game," Branstad said. "So let the people decide."
Branstad has withheld his highly coveted endorsement in the presidential caucuses, though in a 2014 Los Angeles Times interview he made clear that he would like to see a governor win the nomination. Many former aides have signed on with New Jersey Gov. Christie, who is hoping an impressive Iowa showing can launch him to victory eight days later in New Hampshire.
Also, Branstad's son, Eric, leads America's Renewable Future, an organization bankrolled by agriculture interests eager to thwart Cruz, who opposes federal mandates requiring larger amounts of corn-based ethanol be blended into the nation's fuel supply.
Whatever his motivation, Branstad's comment ensured questions about Cruz's citizenship, legitimate or not, would be part of the political discussion in Iowa for at least another day or two -- no small consideration, with the caucuses just three weeks away.