DES MOINES, Iowa – For Republicans with White House dreams, Iowa is the Rubik's cube of primary states. Should they tack right to win over the state's influential bloc of social conservatives? Should they be true to themselves, even if that could backfire? Should they throw up their hands and launch instead in New Hampshire or South Carolina? And if they do that, will Iowa be lost to them in a general election?
Several White House prospects are grappling right now with those questions as the Iowa calendar fills up with events designed as platforms for values issues. Many will participate March 26 in Rep. Steve King's "Conservative Principles Conference
," and last month they began showing up one by one as part of a "presidential lecture series" sponsored by a socially conservative group called The Family Leader
The Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition forum
this week in Waukee provided an intensive sample of what's ahead. God, socialism, abortion and gay marriage were recurring themes in remarks from five White House aspirants and other speakers as well. Jobs? Mostly MIA. Nor was there much focus on federal spending, a top issue for some in the audience of 2,000.
The gathering was hardly a microcosm of the country. Jobs and the economy dwarf other concerns
in one national poll after another. In one recent CBS-New York Times poll, 48 percent named jobs and the economy as their top priority while the budget deficit and national debt were in second place -- at 7 percent. Americans now are evenly divided
on same-sex marriage, with support on the verge of overtaking opposition. A 54 percent majority say abortion should be legal
in all or most cases, versus 42 percent who say illegal in all or most cases.
The forum was not even a microcosm of Iowa. The latest Iowa Poll by the Des Moines Register found that views on gay marriage are a rough three-way split
among oppose, support and don't care. The state is also split on the ouster last fall of three state Supreme Court justices who ruled it constitutional in Iowa -- an election result that came up often at the Waukee forum. As for the economy, Iowa has a 6.3 percent jobless rate -- quite low compared to the national rate of 8.9 percent. Yet nearly nine in 10 in the Iowa Poll said they are still feeling the effects of the recession or seeing it affect others. Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, defeated Democratic governor Chet Culver last fall in part by promising to create 200,000 jobs.
Still, religious conservatives are a political force that can't be ignored. In an Iowa poll just before the 2008 Republican caucuses, 46 percent of likely participants said they were born-again or fundamentalist Christians. Other polls put the figure as high as 60 percent. Their votes put Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and a Baptist pastor, in the winner's circle on caucus night three years ago.
Other early states -- New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, Florida -- sometimes come off as more hospitable to moderates, libertarians, mavericks and fiscal disciplinarians. John McCain, identified less with religious conservatives than with national security issues and opposition to corporate pork (including subsidies for ethanol, made of Iowa corn), was not a good fit for Iowa. He didn't compete here in 2000, when he lost the nomination, and he abandoned it due to money problems in 2008, when he won it. He launched both of those campaigns in New Hampshire.
The specter of candidates bypassing their state has produced an alliance between Matt Strawn and Sue Dvorsky, the heads of the state Republican and Democratic parties, respectively. "We absolutely welcome a robust Republican conversation that includes all of the different voices of that party," Dvorsky told me. "I hope they all come. There are many conversations to have about lots of issues."
The recession and a tea party movement bent on cutting government spending have created a different set of issues for the 2012 caucuses. Strawn said Republican hopefuls will need to discuss jobs, the economy, deficits and entitlement reform. "There's no question your average Iowa caucus-goer is socially conservative and will want to know a candidate's core values," he told me. "But they will absolutely want to hear from the candidates in this environment on what their solutions are for addressing the fiscal challenges America has."
For anyone contemplating skipping, he added that organizing for the caucuses "pays incredible dividends" in the general election, since Iowa is a swing state. McCain, who did not have that organization, lost the state in 2008.
Strawn's "y'all come and talk economics" message was undercut at the forum by King (he said we need to "get the culture right
" and the rest will follow) and former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed. Reed signaled that certain types of candidates would be problematic -- the type, for instance, who would suggest a "truce" with Democrats on values issues as the nation's fiscal mess is sorted out. "I don't know about you, but I'd like to have a leader who can walk and chew gum at the same time," Reed said.
It was a rebuke of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who last year floated the idea of a temporary "truce on the so-called social issues
" so the two parties could focus on the debt and deficit. It also could be read as a caution to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who lost Iowa to Huckabee in 2008 and is testing a new campaign message centered on economic issues
and his business background.
Daniels is weighing whether to run and Romney is weighing how hard to play in Iowa. Reed's remark, heartily applauded, was yet another reminder to candidates like them that Iowa is a puzzle -- perhaps one that can't be solved.
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