DES MOINES — Measured by national polling, media attention and millions in the bank, the Republican field appears to have come down to a bout between two heavyweights: Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, vs. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.
But in the state where the first nominating votes will actually be counted, the field resembles more of an all-out brawl, with candidates who rank deep on the undercard nationally given a chance to steal an upset finish at or near the top in the Iowa caucuses, the first nominating contest, now probably less than three months away.
“I think it’s a wide-open race,” said Gov. Terry E. Branstad, a Republican. “Michele Bachmann is going to make a very strong effort here. Rick Santorum has put in a lot of effort. Ron Paul — I’ve seen a lot of Ron Paul signs — don’t count him out.”
Of course, many Republicans may ultimately rally around a candidate they consider more electable in the general election against President Obama, and as the campaign goes forward a better-financed candidate like Mr. Romney or Mr. Perry may be able to convey that message.
But in the meantime, the lower-tier candidates are attracting uncommon attention, and one reason is the influence of Christian conservatives, who make up the bulk of the voters in the Republican caucuses. In 2008 they rallied behind Mike Huckabee to give him a surprise victory over Mr. Romney, who had spent $10 million and a year on the ground.
But this time, social conservatives are divided among several candidates who are competing fiercely for their support — each boasting of rock-ribbed opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. The candidates are also finding ways to tie other conservative positions, like ending big government and regulations, to principles of Christian faith.
“Conservative, pro-family folks are spread out all over the place,” said Matt Reisetter, who worked for Mr. Huckabee in 2008 and is undecided this year. “You can make a case for six or seven people. It’s crazy to imagine we’re this close to the caucuses and it’s still wide open.”
Sixty percent of Republican caucusgoers in 2008 identified themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians in surveys of voters entering the polls, although they were not a monolithic bloc: Mr. Huckabee won with 34 percent of the total votes.
Even though abortion and same-sex marriage rank relatively low on the list of issues for Republicans generally — and certainly behind the economy — they fire up activists, who have a disproportionate influence in a caucus state, where voters must be committed enough to spend hours in a neighbor’s living room on a winter evening before casting their vote. This year, the caucuses are likely to be held in early January.
Some candidates are paying particular attention to a subset of social conservatives, home-school parents, whom one strategist compared to postal carriers: neither sleet nor dark of night will keep them from the caucuses.
“I would say those home-schooling for faith-based reasons are going to go hand in glove with an interest in the social issues like life and marriage,” said Bill Gustoff, a lobbyist for the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators. He estimated that half of the 30,000 home-school households would have a voter at a caucus, a significant slice in an election that draws about 120,000 total voters.
At least two candidates, Mr. Santorum and Mrs. Bachmann, both of whom have home-schooled their children, have staff members here to organize this vote.
Mrs. Bachmann, who has lost much ground since winning the Ames, Iowa, straw poll in August, seems to be looking to evangelicals to rescue her. On Thursday she introduced a House bill requiring women seeking an abortion to listen to the fetal heartbeat.
One Bachmann aide, Peter Waldron, gathered 16 evangelical pastors in Des Moines last week to discuss strategy. “These are our caucus-builders,” Mr. Waldron said. “We have a very deliberate plan. It’s been thought-out, prayed over.”
Although most pastors are careful not to endorse a candidate from the pulpit, those who are politically active make it clear whom they favor.
“My favorite phrase in our church is, ‘I will not tell you who to vote for,’ ” said the Rev. Bill Tvedt of Jubilee Family Church in Oskaloosa. “But you won’t need anyone to tell you who to vote for by the time you’re taught scriptural world view.”
Mr. Tvedt supports Mrs. Bachmann — and predicted that most of his congregation of 150 would caucus for her — saying she is one of “the biggest opponents of what we would call progressive, socialist, liberal agendas.”
Herman Cain, the former pizza executive who has surged in national polls, also has a strong appeal to social conservatives, but his prospects may be lessened in Iowa because he has few visits planned to the state, where voters insist on taking the measure of a candidate close-up.
Another difference this year is that the loyalty to candidates seems especially fluid, with voters and even activists switching allegiances.
“There is still a vacuum out there that can be filled: Who’s going to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney?” said Cody Brown, Mr. Santorum’s state director. The Santorum campaign claims its telephone surveys of Republicans shows support for Mrs. Bachmann drastically falling off.
Mrs. Bachmann’s national campaign manager, Keith Nahigian, disputed this. “Anybody who was strong for us is still strong for us,” he said.
Mr. Perry, whose popularity surged after he entered the race in August, has lost luster with conservatives because of actions he took as governor, primarily his promotion of a vaccine for Texas schoolgirls, Gardasil, and his support of in-state college tuition for some illegal immigrants.
“The Gardasil and the immigration thing are killers,” said Steve Deace, an influential religious talk-radio host in Iowa. “He lost a major opportunity to blow the rest of the field away. He can still very much win the nomination but it’s going to be a dogfight — hill by hill, issue by issue.”
Indeed, that is the kind of fight Mr. Perry seems to be waging with his paid Iowa staff of 10, one of the largest of any candidate. In thousands of phone calls to likely caucusgoers, staff members are finding that most bring up immigration. They have been trained to try to change minds, voter by voter.
They argue that the in-state tuition the governor supported is not a taxpayer-financed subsidy; it is available only to children of illegal immigrants who graduated from a Texas high school, and most go to community colleges.
Even if a second-tier candidate wins Iowa, it is no guarantee of a path to the nomination, as Mr. Huckabee’s example showed.
But the only candidate who can afford not to win may be Mr. Romney, whose strategy in Iowa has consistently been to lower expectations. He has only five paid staff members in the state and has made infrequent visits.
One possible outcome that would be sweet irony for Mr. Romney: all the others split the social conservative vote and Mr. Romney, who still has plenty of support here, emerges the surprise victor.
Source: NY Times