Growing Evangelical Clout Shaping 2012 Debate

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DES MOINES, Iowa— Republican presidential candidates take note: the clout of social and religious conservatives is growing in politically crucial Iowa. And these activists are driving the debate here toward cultural issues — and away from the economy — just as the GOP sets out to find an opponent for President Barack Obama.

"They've gotten more involved in the party," said Norm Pawlewski, a lobbyist for the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. "I've seen a change in the kind of people who are volunteering — and not only volunteering but working."

With Obama's re-election race looming next year, this constituency — made up heavily of evangelical Christians — is intent on playing a major role in choosing the winner of next year's Iowa GOP caucuses. It's seeking a repeat of 2008 when it coalesced around the underfunded former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to give the Southern Baptist minister a surprise first place finish. [Read more about the 2012 presidential election.

Since then, social and religious conservatives have stepped up their organization efforts, including hosting a series of forums for presidential candidates. Two are this week alone.

"They've harnessed the new technology and new methods to organize and activate their members," said veteran Republican strategist Bob Haus. "They are professionally run and they are a top-notch organization."

Maybe a force to be reckoned with, too.

As Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford put it: "They have essentially the best organization of the various Republican constituencies."

The increased activity by this crop of conservatives has been driven in part by a huge fight in the state last year over gay marriage. Voters ousted three Supreme Court justices because of their role in a decision striking down a ban on same-sex marriage. Activists also were energized by huge GOP gains in the state last fall, including ousting a Democratic governor.

Also, Steve Scheffler, who heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said part of the energy surging through social and religious conservatives comes from antipathy to the Obama administration.

"Pure and simple, what's driven that is an administration that few of us would have dreamed would be so bad," said Scheffler.

The increasing dominance of Iowa's social and religious conservatives presents challenges to GOP presidential candidates as they start trooping in earnest to the state whose precinct caucuses traditionally launch the presidential nominating season.

Unlike at the national level where social issues are taking a backseat to the economy, there's no sign that Iowa Republicans are moving away from discussing topics like gay marriage and abortion. [See editorial cartoons about gay marriage.]

Thus, the state could be fertile ground for likely contenders who play up their opposition to those issues and others that the right detests. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty are among those who aren't shying away from those topics. [Read 10 things you didn't know about Tim Pawlenty.]

Conversely, the state landscape also could pose hurdles to GOP hopefuls who are downplaying cultural issues.

All-but-declared candidates like Mitt Romney and Haley Barbour have made it clear their campaigns will be focused on the economy. And Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who also is weighing a bid, has suggested the party call "a truce" on fighting over social issues while the economy is in such trouble.

Social and religious conservatives here blanch.

"What would a truce look like?" asked Danny Carroll, who is with the conservative group the Family Leader, which led the charge against the judges. "To those true believers, other things just don't get them out of bed in the morning. If you called a truce, people would just say 'I'll stay home and do something else.'"

Chuck Hurley, who heads the conservative Iowa Family Policy Center, has nothing but disdain for those seeking to downplay social issues.