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Posted at 8:31 AM ET, 03/ 9/2011

What do GOP presidential candidates need to do to win Iowa?

By Jennifer Rubin

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."

By Jennifer Rubin  | March 9, 2011; 8:31 AM ET
Categories:  2012 campaign  
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There is a very strong -- perhaps 40% of the total -- evangelical community in Iowa, and in a caucus system, it could coalesce behind one candidate (as it did for Huckabee), while the more pragmatic candidates split the remaining votes. In this respect it is not odd that Scheffler mentions Israel, inasmuch as conservative Christians are deeply committed to Israel's survival.

Another dynamic that many easterners may not recognize is that culturally, Iowa is two states, neatly divided by I-35. West of I-35 the state is deeply red; east, it's usually a blue, midwestern industrial mix. This is where the old-line manufacturers and their union employees live, this is where the University of Iowa is (Iowa City went 70% for McGovern). Even Jim Leach was not conservative enough for his Eastern Iowa district.

Pawlenty is remaking himself to capture the evangelicals, it seems. In Minnesota he declined to wear his religion quite so openly on his sleeve, though he is a sincere evangelical.

I really don't see what winning the Iowa caucuses has lately proven, or will prove again, in respect of the national contest. I understand the horse-racing value of winning Iowa, but there is no way Romney will do well (if he even tries to do well) with the 40% active evangelical base. It seems to me that the caucuses are still living off the surprise Carter pulled in 1976, and have shown little predictive value for either party, since.

Posted by: IowaHawkeye | March 9, 2011 9:42 AM | Report abuse

Apologies: I didn't realize that I was parroting many of Dana Milbank's comments on Pawlenty, and even using the same heart on sleeve metaphor. I was speaking yesterday with a friend who is a leading Minnesota pollster and political analyst, who knows Pawlenty, because I just thought that all of the Jesus rhetoric sounded weird, coming from Pawlenty. I would certainly confirm Milbank's comments on the newness of Pawlenty's new political persona. The only thing I can guess is that Pawlenty thinks he can dominate the evangelical vote and thereby win a plurality in a crowded field.

Posted by: IowaHawkeye | March 9, 2011 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Here it is early March 2011, TWENTY MONTHS before the 2012 Presidential election.

What Iowa needs to do concerning the Presidential election is COOL IT! And that goes double for political pundits who apparently have too little to do and are short on good sense. Whipping up election fever at this point is bad for the candidates, bad for the party, and bad for the nation.

Good on any candidate refusing to play into such stupidity.

Posted by: nvjma | March 9, 2011 10:51 AM | Report abuse

LOL "We are not tied to any political party."

Just like the teabaggers used to claim.

Posted by: Observer691 | March 9, 2011 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Romney won't win Iowa, but it has little (maybe nothing) to do with his religious faith. This often gets cited in political punditry land, and frankly it is sad that so many people have such shallow depth of understanding on this topic.

The knock on Romney is right here in this article:

"...equivocators and those who have compromised on key conservative values need not apply."

When conservatives of any stripe believe your "values" are for sale on the block of political expediency, you have a severe slope to climb politically. This is true in Iowa and nearly anywhere.

Thus, Romney spent $ millions in 2007 and could not close the deal in the Iowa caucuses. He will spare himself the embarassment this time, and I guess hope other states with more RINOs will give him a pass. I say good luck with that.

Meanwhile there are plenty others in the '12 race who are not 2008 retreads that have bonafides on social AND fiscal conservative values that Romney could never hope to have due to his own history.

Posted by: CycloneBA | March 9, 2011 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Cyclone (and my sympathies, incidentally) I think your assessment of Romney suffers when we look at Huckabee's success last time.

Huckabee is no conservative, by many standards save his religion -- yet he swept the evangelicals. I think that there is a lot of evidence that 40% of the Iowa activist Republicans vote single issue. That issue is evangelical Christian: true or false.

I don't like it but it is a fact: if your religious faith requires you to assert the inerrancy of the Bible, and if you believe the country needs to reorient many aspects of its public life to better reflect Christian values, then Romney is just not going to connect. Put it another way: if Romney ran for governor, much less president, I don't think he'd make it out of the primary.

He is a devout Mormon and will not impugn his faith to get elected. The Vanderplats (sic) wing in Iowa will not go for a Mormon. His other political equivocations make it final, because they repel the more secular, pragmatic Republicans. He's almost uniquely configured to do very poorly in Iowa.

Posted by: IowaHawkeye | March 9, 2011 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Due to RomneyCare and its mandate, Romney is like a Civil War soldier with a gut wound. He's still walking around, but it's certain to be fatal. It's a shame because he's otherwise a strong candidate with impeccable qualifications.

Pawlenty sounded a little bit off-key to me the other night, but his speech may have been well-suited for his audience. Of the likely candidates, he seems to be the only one without a disqualifying negative. Ryan, Christie and Daniels are my favorites, but I doubt any of them will run.

Posted by: eoniii | March 9, 2011 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Republicans are all about jobs? jobs? jobs?

They need to bring Jesus to the Iowa caucuses, the primary, AND the general election...they're gonna need him.

Bunch of idiots. So be it.

Posted by: danw1 | March 9, 2011 3:41 PM | Report abuse

"He will spare himself the embarassment this time,..."

Ah, but you have not been spared today by the Spelling Gods for that "embarrassment."

Quite all right, I had to look it up myself to be sure. I hate that darn word!

P.S. The first candidate doing those robo-calls denigrating his/her rivals, as Huckabee so often did last time around, will lose my vote in a heartbeat.

Posted by: aardunza | March 9, 2011 3:56 PM | Report abuse

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