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For GOP in Iowa, a shift in emphasis

Social issues may be less decisive than the economy for conservative voters.

March 22, 2011|Mark Z. Barabak

WAUKEE, IOWA — As he warmed up the crowd at a recent gathering of White House hopefuls, Iowa Rep. Steve King delivered a line that seemed sure to please an audience deeply concerned about social issues.

"If we get the culture right, the economy will be right eventually," the Republican congressman told the roughly 1,000 religious activists gathered in a star-spangled church amphitheater. But first, he insisted, "We've got to get the culture right."

The response was a polite smattering of applause, nothing like the roar that went up when speakers accused President Obama of marching toward socialism, piling up a stratospheric debt and denying America's exceptional place in the world.

"I want somebody with strong moral values," Linda Ill, 61, a nurse from West Des Moines, said as she waited for the program, hosted by the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, to begin. But, she said, she also wants a candidate who will "cut the debt, cut taxes, make America strong and secure the borders."

For the last 25 years, Christian conservatives have played a vital role in Iowa's Republican caucuses, the first event on the presidential selection calendar, and have thus gone a long way toward shaping the national nominating fight. Their influence shows no sign of waning; if the pattern holds, about half those who turn out for the party caucuses next winter will be self-identified evangelicals.

Winning their support has always rested on fidelity to conservative positions on such issues as abortion and gay rights. But wooing Christian conservatives may be more complicated this time because of both the political environment and the prospective makeup of the 2012 Republican field.

Christian conservatives -- many of whom are working-class -- have hardly been immune to the economic slide that has made pocketbook issues the top voter concern as the presidential contest begins.

"You can't just go out and talk abortion, abortion, abortion and gay marriage, gay marriage, gay marriage and expect to emerge victorious" in the caucuses, said Doug Gross, a Des Moines lawyer and veteran Republican activist. "While they may be gateway issues" -- earning a candidate consideration among evangelicals -- "I don't think they're decisive issues."

Gross hails from the GOP's business-oriented wing, which has warred for years with Iowa Republicans more focused on morality. But his view was seconded by Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition.

Although candidates must still pass muster on social issues, "most people want a candidate who can balance [social and economic] issues," he said. "One goes hand in hand with the other."

A recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that 65% of GOP primary voters across the country said they would be more likely to vote for a Republican who focused more on fiscal matters than social issues. The finding was the same even among evangelical voters.

While much of that undoubtedly stems from nervousness about the economic recovery, it may also reflect the fact that religious conservatives can take for granted that just about any of the Republicans running share their personal views. That was not the case in 2008.

One of the front-runners four years ago, former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, favored legalizing abortion and supported gay rights. Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were more conservative, but had little passion for social issues and, in Romney's case, had previously held much more moderate views.

That left Sam Brownback, a senator from Kansas at the time, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee as the only candidates who put their religious conservatism front and center. When Brownback quit, evangelicals flocked to Huckabee and he won Iowa handily.

This time, depending on who runs, half a dozen or more candidates who share the same views -- against abortion, opposed to same-sex marriage -- may compete for the support of Iowa's Christian voters.

While the list of competitors is not yet certain, those who already enjoy support among religious conservatives include Huckabee, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has also courted religious voters assiduously, in part to offset concerns about his three marriages and an extramarital affair. Romney, who finished second in Iowa in 2008, is expected to focus more this time on his business background and has sent mixed signals on how vigorously he will compete in the caucuses.

Huckabee, who is weighing a second try at the White House, enjoys some residual support in Iowa but is hardly a prohibitive favorite among social conservatives. "Once they're comfortable a candidate has checked the boxes -- pro-life, pro-traditional marriage -- the competition is wide open," said Craig Robinson, former political director for the Iowa GOP.

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