Romney Courts Christian Conservatives
Continuing his courtship of social conservaties, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will travel to Cedar Rapids, Iowa on May 8 to meet with the Iowa Christian Alliance.
The group, formerly known as the Iowa Christian Coalition, is seen as an influential force among the state's social conservatives -- a key voting bloc in the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. Steve Scheffler, president of the ICA, said the group does not keep membership numbers but has gorwn substantially in the past 5 years.
Romney will be the second 2008 aspirant to join a house party hosted by ICA members, according to Scheffler. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee met with the members of the organization on March 6, and several other candidates weighing the 2008 race, including Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kans.) have expressed interest in meeting with ICA. Scheffler said the organization sent out a letter to all of the potential candidates in early 2006 asking them to take time to meet with ICA. While the group cannot formally endorse a candidate, being on the good side of the group (and its members) would be a major boon to any of the potential candidates.
An ICA online newsletter announcing the Romney house party urges attendees to ask "tough questions" now or miss the "opportunity to make these canddiates accountable to the pro-family movement."
Romney is sure to come under questioning in regards his Mormon faith, which is viewed skeptically by many evangelical Christians. But, during a visit to South Carolina in late February, Romney said that he did not anticipate major hurdles in the evangelical community due to his beliefs. "People want to see their leaders as people of faith ... they don't put much significance in the brand," he said.
Convincing religious voters that he shares their values is one of Romney's primary tasks between now and January 2008. He does not enjoy a natural foothold in the state -- as he does in other early voting states like New Hampshire and Michigan -- and could leverage support from the party's ideological right to make a strong showing.
The Iowa Republican caucuses traditionally have been dominated by religious conservatives, who have helped propel candidates who share their worldview to surprisingly strong showings. In 1988, the Rev. Pat Robertson came from nowhere to finish second in the caucuses behind Kansas Sen. Bob Dole. Eight years later Pat Buchanan, bolstered by support from religious conservatives, placed second behind Dole, who went on to win the GOP nomination.
While first impressions are sure to matter, Romney will get other chances to court this key constituency. Scheffler says he is planning a statewide forum in May (tentatively scheduled for May 12 at the HyVee Conference Center in Des Moines) where he will invite all of the 2008 Republican candidates to talk issues.
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