DES MOINES – Social and evangelical conservatives within Iowa’s Republican Party have not ordained a clear standard-bearer heading into Saturday’s straw poll in Ames, but leaders within the powerful voting bloc are not ruling out a surprise in Ames given that a lot of unmeasured networking via social media is taking place below the political radar.
“I’m usually pretty good at trying to analyze what’s going on but it’s really up in the air right now,” said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition and a Republican National Committee member from Iowa. “I think it’s pretty questionable where people are going to flock to. That could get muddled even more if and when Sarah Palin and/or Rick Perry possibly get in the race.”
Jenifer Bowen, executive director of Iowa Right to Life, agreed, saying “There are so many candidates that are good, solid pro-life candidates that are in the race that there is not a clear winner.”
The strength and benefit for a GOP candidate shepherding the support of the social and religious conservatives was evident four years ago in former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s rise to second place in the Ames straw poll and later victory in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses.
Des Moines attorney Doug Gross, a Republican activist and former 2002 gubernatorial nominee, said Huckabee benefitted from “sort of an immaculate conception organization that comes out of the churches, that sort of materializes out of thin air — you don’t see it by normal means, but it just shows up” with followers turning out at the straw poll and caucuses to back the candidate or candidates that share their views.
“We’ll see whether or not that materializes this time,” he said.
Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader who played a lead role in Huckabee’s 2007 Iowa campaign, said this year’s straw poll is shaping up to be a contest between Minnesotans Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty with U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas also threatening a finish among the top two. However, he said former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum “is really catching fire of late” by campaigning in less-traveled areas not part of Iowa’s main media markets. Santorum also earned support by being the only GOP presidential hopeful who took part in a bus tour in Iowa last year that targeted Iowa Supreme Court justices up for retention who were part of the April 2009 decision that legalized civil marriages for couples of the same gender.
“I don’t know if it’s too little, too late, but I’m hearing a lot of good reports about Rick Santorum. He might be the surprise finish,” Vander Plaats said.
Gross was skeptical, noting that Santorum has temporarily relocated his family in Iowa to make a concerted push similar to a strategy employed by Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd four years ago and that didn’t keep Dodd in the race. He said several candidates are competing for the same bloc of conservatives, with Bachmann and Pawlenty devoting a lot of resources in Iowa to make a strong showing Saturday.
“You’ve got multiple legitimate social conservatives, so some of that is going to be split up,” Gross said.
Loras Schulte, a former state representative and GOP chairman in Benton County, said that even though their votes will be diffused among a number of candidates, the straw poll offers social conservatives a chance to “send a message to Washington, to send the nation a message.”
Chuck Hurley of the Iowa Family Policy Center and The Family Leader said six Republicans – Bachmann, Georgia businessman Herman Cain, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Pawlenty, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Santorum – have openly professed their Christian faith and conservative values in a way that has attracted evangelical supporters.
While the backing may be fragmented in Saturday’s balloting, Hurley said he expected the straw poll “will probably crystallize or congeal or winnow to some degree” to where one or possibly two candidates likely would emerge as the choice of social and evangelical conservatives in the 2012 precinct caucuses.
(James Lynch of The Gazette contributed to this story)
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