Washington (CNN) - A well-known Iowa congressman assumed the role of political pundit on Tuesday, sizing up the strengths and weaknesses of fellow Republicans who are running for president.
Rep. Steve King represents Iowa's 5th district including Council Bluffs and Sioux City. CNN caught up with the congressman on a flight from Des Moines to Washington, D.C.
What King thinks matters to many Republicans. He represents one of Iowa's most conservative districts and he's been repeatedly elected to the House since his first election in 2002. In March, King hosted the Conservative Principles Conference in Des Moines that was well attended by many conservatives, including some who were considering presidential bids. He is a vocal member of the House Tea Party Caucus and a frequent speaker at tea party rallies.
King is considered a thought leader among Iowa Republicans ahead of the August 13 Ames Straw Poll - a showdown between GOP presidential candidates that will test their popularity and could be a sign of their electability.
During the interview, King assessed the GOP field. The five-term congressman admitted he is "close personal friends" with Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. Both lawmakers have frequently been seen together rallying supporters at tea party rallies.
However, King has not endorsed any candidate. His office tells CNN that the will wait awhile.
Regarding the three-term congresswoman, King said, "It looks like Michele Bachmann has the momentum. And the campaign has the energy."
Regarding the high-stakes Ames contest, the Hawkeye state native said the expectation for Bachmann to win is high, but hedged that prospect.
"If she finishes second she's going to look pretty good," he said.
When asked about Bachmann's weaknesses as a campaigner King demurred, saying she's "right on the issues."
But he did raise one query.
"I think we don't really know what kinds of weaknesses a conservative woman might bring to the top of the ticket," he said.
King similarly praised Texas Rep. Ron Paul and conservative businessman Herman Cain.
"I think Ron Paul is underestimated," King said. "He has a group of solid core, very dedicated supporters that will be there. Getting people to show up at the [Ames] straw poll takes an organizational ability. You need dedicated people."
But King was also doubtful of Paul's overall chances.
"That doesn't mean I think he's going to win the [Republican] nomination. But I think he'll be a strong showing at the straw poll," King said.
As for Cain, King said: "I like Herman [Cain]. He's an engaging guy." Yet he added: "It seems as though his campaign has not got the energy that it seemed to have early...But Herman is right on the issues. And he started out strong. I just haven't seen much of him lately."
King was not as charitable with other contenders.
When the interview turned to Newt Gingrich, King said the former House Speaker has not lived up to expectations.
"Newt Gingrich looked like he was going to be a strong contender all the way through," the congressman said. "I wouldn't write anybody out. But [Gingrich] hasn't had a very good last couple of months. Right now, he's got a lot of campaign to put back together."
King's most stern words were aimed at former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman.
Pawlenty and Bachmann have recently traded jabs as they vie for Iowa political supremacy.
King assessed Pawlenty's strengths and weaknesses this way: "He says the right things. He's put pretty good people in his organization. And he's built a pretty good organization."
"For some reason, he just hasn't gotten the traction in proportion to the effort he put in. And that's a judgment call from a lot of the caucus goers and a lot of the activists," King continued.
"I keep seeing attacks on the Bachmann campaign coming from Pawlenty's people. And we don't need a Minnesota Hatfield & McCoy thing going on in here," King added, employing the popular metaphor used to describe two bitterly feuding rivals.
"I think that turns out to be a negative reaction on Pawlenty."
As for Romney and Huntsman, King bemoaned that neither man is making Iowa a top political priority.
He recalled his own GOP pick for president in the 2008 race, former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson - who skipped competing in the Ames contest.
"I can think of a lady, in particular, she said: 'Gosh I'm not going to vote for someone for president whom I've not yet met,'" King said of an Iowa resident while describing the familiarity Iowans can have with their potential picks for president.
King then raised Romney and Huntsman.
"They each gave a reason that they weren't going to compete in the straw poll. It's not too late to come in and compete in the caucus. And it's really not too late for them to come in and compete in the straw poll either. But those reasons sounded to me like excuses, not reasons," he said.
"If they can't compete in Iowa, then why would they think they can be the president of the United States?"
CNN reached out to the various campaigns for reaction.
Paul campaign spokesman Jesse Benton said: "It's certainly nice when somebody with stature in Iowa like Steve King has pleasant things to say about us. We have the potential to do well in the straw poll. And that's a clean block to keep building the momentum towards the level of support we need to win the nomination."
Cain campaign communications director Ellen Carmichael said: "We just opened up an office. We are staffed up and we look forward to visiting more."
She mentioned an upcoming bus tour in Iowa, ahead of the Ames contest, as well as Cain's attendance at various debates and public events.
"We've definitely demonstrated a commitment, above all other candidates, to the state of Iowa," Carmichael said, adding, "Mr. Cain has a great amount of respect for Mr. King's passion and principles."
As for Gingrich, spokesman R.C. Hammond said: "We're big fans of Steve King...and he's right. This is a long campaign and you got to be tough to survive. It's one thing Newt [Gingrich] is."
"There's a lot at stake," Hammond continued. "This isn't a candidacy about Newt Gingrich. This is about a candidacy for whether or not America is a country that's back on the right track. And that's why Newt's out there." Hammond mentioned that the campaign has "weathered and moved on" from early problems plaguing the campaign like staff defections.
Romney's campaign declined to comment on King's remarks.
CNN reached out to Huntsman and Pawlenty campaigns but received no response.
Follow Shannon Travis on Twitter: @ShanTravisCNN