OCHEYEDAN, Iowa (AP) — If Sen. Charles Grassley thought he could escape the pressure over President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nomination by traveling to friendly conservative territory, the trip offered little relief.
The powerful Iowa Republican, who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, arrived Monday at a town hall meeting in a Republican-dominated county, only to find that the debate had followed him. The discussion at a senior center was dominated by his refusal to hold confirmation hearings.
Grassley's position has drawn blistering criticism from Democrats in Washington and from chanting activists at rallies back home in Iowa. He probably sought a more welcome reception when he scheduled three town hall meetings for this week in areas that have strongly supported him in the past.
Among the roughly 35 people gathered Monday in Ocheyedan, a town of 470, was Nancy Cook, a retired teacher from Spirit Lake, who pointed out that Obama will be president for the rest of the year and should be allowed to get a hearing for his nominee.
"It's part of his job to fulfill," she said.
Grassley said more than half of the Senate would not support any hearings and that he prefers to work on things with bipartisan backing.
"In other words, you're stalling," Cook said.
Grassley calmly replied that many people believe presidents in their last year should not name justices, believing that voters should first have their say when they elect a new president.
Retired railroad worker Dave Damstrom of Spencer was blunter.
"Excuse me, senator, but it seems to me like there's so much crap in the political system, and I expect you to be a leader and not part of this," he said. "I'm just getting sick of this stuff. Just do your job, and let politics be what it is."
He was shouted down by another person who interrupted, "He is doing his job and doing a good job of it."
Monday's meeting took place in a Republican-dominated county where Grassley won more than 80 percent of the vote in his last two elections. On Tuesday, his sole public event is set in a neighboring county where 92 percent of voters backed him in 2010.
Some observers think it's no coincidence that the 82-year-old senator has chosen this time to hold public events more than 200 miles from far more liberal Des Moines or other urban areas.
"If I was on his staff, that's exactly what I'd tell him to do, said Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt. "The reason is right now is when there's going to be most controversy about this. It's a hot topic, and people are squirrely about it with demonstrations in Des Moines."
Grassley, who is seeking re-election to a seventh term in November, is also holding 16 private question-and-answer sessions at schools, service organizations and businesses during the Senate's 16-day spring holiday.
Aides to Grassley said the meetings are business-as-usual for a politician first elected to the Iowa House in 1958 who has not faced a close election in decades. Although Iowa twice favored Obama in presidential elections, independents and even some Democrats typically support Grassley, who received nearly 65 percent of the vote in the 2010 general election and more than 70 percent in 2004.
Every year, he visits each of Iowa's 99 counties, a practice that has become known as "the full Grassley" and is often copied by politicians seeking statewide office, as well as some presidential candidates seeking support in the first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Although he's heavily favored to win re-election, Grassley's refusal to hold hearings for nominee Merrick Garland, a federal appeals court judge, prompted well-known former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge to belatedly seek the Democratic nomination to challenge Grassley.
Grassley "is acting like someone who has been in Washington for far too long," Judge said.
He has responded that it would be a waste of time to hold hearings when Garland has no chance of being confirmed.
"Checks and balances among three co-equal branches of government are crucial to our system of government and accountability," Grassley said in a statement. "Changing the direction of the Supreme Court for a generation is too important for the court, and the nominee, to get bogged down in politics."
Activists said they will not be deterred by Grassley's choice of friendly territory.
"We are organizing, and we are going to have people at each of those town halls," said Matt Sinovic, executive director of Progress Iowa and spokesman for Iowa Why Courts Matter, a coalition of several liberal organizations advocating for keeping court systems free of political influence.
In the first days after Justice Antonin Scalia's death last month, Grassley equivocated over whether he would allow the Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on Obama's selection, telling Iowa radio reporters, "I would wait until the nominee is made before I would make any decision."
But a week later — well before Obama picked Garland — Grassley and the 10 other GOP members of the Judiciary Committee released a letter stating that the panel would hold no hearings on an Obama nominee until after the president elected in November is sworn in, saying they wanted to "protect the will of the American people.