What do GOP presidential candidates need to do to win Iowa?
Steve Scheffler is a RNC committeeman from Iowa and heads Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, which hosted a forum for presidential candidates on Monday. Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain and former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer appeared. (Mitt Romney, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour were invited but didn't show.) The coalition's Web site explains, "We stand for integrity in government, high moral values, constitutional authority, and Christian principles. Our purpose is to educate and influence voters and politicians to keep their commitment to both liberty and law; that America may continue to be one nation under God. We are not tied to any political party." In sum, these are the values voters who are critical in the caucus system.
I spoke by phone last night with Scheffler. He told me that Monday's event "far exceeded expectations" and put the crowd size at 1,600 to 1,700. He emphasized that this is only the beginning of the process. "Not 5 percent of them [Iowans] would have said, 'That's my candidate,'" he said. But, as you often hear from Iowans, it is critical for candidates who want to do well in the caucuses to show up, put together a ground game and practice the retail politics that the caucuses demand.
Scheffler is adamant that other states won't be able to leapfrog Iowa in the nomination process: "Regardless of what Florida does, Iowa will be the first." He said he hopes it doesn't come to this, but that if needed to defend its position, Iowa will hold the caucuses "earlier than RNC rules allow."
Although conservative Iowans are engaged, the candidates have been slow to declare and put together an infrastructure. Scheffler observed that Pawlenty has done some of that, as has Santorum. There will be another candidate event on March 26, more during the summer, a large gathering on Oct. 22 and then a series of house parties in December, where candidates will be grilled and picked over by the voters.
So what are values voters looking for? Scheffler told me they are "wary of the social drift" under President Obama, citing funding for Planned Parenthood, abortion funding, educational choice and the refusal of the Obama administration to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act as some of the top concerns. But Scheffler also made clear that such issues are not the sum total of these voters' concerns. They are, he explained, "interested in and concerned about the overwhelming debt." And on foreign policy, Scheffler said that Christian conservatives in his state find it "really baffling that Obama is apologizing for America's greatness." Interestingly, the one specific foreign policy failing he raised was "Obama's treatment of Israel."
Aside from their positions on issues, Scheffler advised candidates that value voters are "looking for a candidate who has backbone and the stamina to pursue public policy if the sledding gets tough." He said that the issues are different, but Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker personifies this quality. How will Scheffler tell who has this attribute? He told me he will look at a "candidate's belief system and if he's got a track record of pursuing [conservative] issues." In other words, equivocators and those who have compromised on key conservative values need not apply.
Scheffler's group is "unlikely" to endorse a presidential candidate, but he warned that "short of an endorsement we might steer voters away" from one or more contenders if they aren't going to pursue a conservative agenda. He also advised that if a candidate wants to be in the mix in Iowa, he has one or two months to set up an operation. "They need to come sooner or later," he said. And if it's not sooner, "voters will start looking elsewhere."
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