For GOP moderates, new hope in Iowa

Pat Robertson at a victory rally in 1988 as he led Vice President George H.W. Bush in the Iowa Caucus returns. Pat Robertson at a victory rally in 1988 as he led Vice President George H.W. Bush in the Iowa Caucus returns. (Peter Southwick/Associated Press/File)
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / May 27, 2011

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DES MOINES — Television evangelist Pat Robertson shocked the political establishment here on a cold February night in 1988, coming in second in the state’s GOP caucuses, with more support than the vice president, George H.W. Bush.

Robertson’s strong showing was fueled by a so-called “invisible army’’ of evangelical followers, who surfaced just days before the vote and discovered the power they could wield.

That army is invisible no longer. In a twist, though, split loyalties within its ranks could improve the chances of a more moderate GOP candidate like Mitt Romney, who stumbled here in 2008 and has spent little time in Iowa since. The former Massachusetts governor, who makes his first 2011 visit to Iowa today and will formally announce his candidacy Thursday, is up against the fact that, over the past quarter-century, highly motivated Christian conservatives have played an outsize role in a presidential selection process here. The reason is, at least in part, that they are a highly motivated voting bloc, willing to sit through an entire evening-long caucus meeting, rather than just commit to a five-minute stop at a voting booth.

“They’re going to walk through hell and high water for their candidate,’’ said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University and coauthor of a book on the history of the caucuses. “The problem with moderates is they’re not going to walk through hell and high water for anybody.’’

But recent history has shown the Christian right does not dominate Republican politics in Iowa across the board. A candidate focusing on fiscal issues last year defeated a candidate stressing social issues in a gubernatorial GOP primary.

And, with the current field beginning to solidify, it could be more difficult for the religious conservatives to unite behind a single candidate than it was in 2008, when Mike Huckabee — himself an ordained pastor — drew much of their support and won the contest.

Now Christian conservatives have at least five candidates courting them: Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former Godfathers Pizza chief executive Herman Cain, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, and former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Those candidates could split the vote, paving the way for the more moderate Republicans to have an impact once again.

“Romney has a better opportunity in Iowa this time than he did in ’08,’’ said Doug Gross, who was Romney’s state cochairman during the 2008 campaign but is now unaligned. “2008 was a race where you had one social conservative in the race and multiple economic conservatives.’’

Romney four years ago struggled to manage the expectations game, spending lots of time and resources in the state and hiring a broad team of advisers. He won 25 percent of the vote, and came in second, but it was seen as a failure. His advisers now are hesitant to make predictions and want to keep expectations low. They won’t comment on whether Romney will participate in the Iowa Straw Poll in August, which is seen as a vital first step to mounting a campaign here.

But they are still laying the groundwork for a campaign that could focus on the type of voters who care about the economy first — not religious or social issues — and there are signs such a strategy could work.

Governor Terry Branstad was able to win a Republican primary here last year, defeating Bob Vander Plaats, who is one of the state’s top evangelical power brokers. Iowans have pointed to Branstad’s election as a signal that an economic-focused candidate can successfully compete here.

“Iowa is a full-spectrum state,’’ Branstad said at a press conference earlier this month, trying to rebut claims that Iowa was too conservative to have the first-in-the-nation nominating contest. “The primary election I won last year proves that.’’

Vander Plaats also gives Romney a good chance. With Huckabee out of the race, he said, Iowa is “Romney’s to lose.’’

A crucial difference between the caucus and Branstad’s win over Vander Plaats is that Branstad won in a primary where 230,000 people voted. Polling indicated that 41 percent of likely voters considered themselves evangelicals, and 31 percent considered themselves independent.

The 2008 GOP caucuses, on the other hand, attracted only 119,000 people — making it easier for religious conservatives to exert their influence. Sixty percent of caucus-goers considered themselves evangelicals and 13 percent said they were independent, according to entrance polls.

The rise of the religious right in Iowa has been taking place over the past quarter century, with many pointing to Robertson’s second place finish in 1988 — behind then-Senator Bob Dole from neighboring Kansas — as the first major sign of the power of the religious conservative voting bloc.

“The evangelical Christians just had not been active in politics at all,’’ Robertson said in an interview, recalling traveling the state on a bus with country singer Ricky Skaggs. “They just didn’t think that was something they could aspire to. When I came along as their champion, they were thrilled to get involved and they were very dedicated. They walked the precincts, they licked the envelopes, they knocked on doors and they did it very diligently. I was the only voice in those days, and so they coalesced around me.’’

Iowa’s rightward shift has become the subject of conflict with its early-voting rival, New Hampshire. Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, recently wrote a column in the Des Moines Register suggesting that Iowa was making itself irrelevant.

“Mike Huckabee’s 2008 win in Iowa, and the perception that Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith disqualified him among many caucus voters,’’ he wrote, “begs the question for secular candidates who emphasize fiscal issues: If you’re not likely to win what amounts to an evangelical primary, why compete?’’

It’s an argument that makes Iowa Republicans across the political spectrum bristle. “This constituency is not a bunch of robots who basically say, ‘yes sir, whatever you say I’m going to jump off the cliff,’’’ said Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committeeman who also runs the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Over time, though, the aggressiveness of the religious conservatives has effectively pushed aside more moderate, economically focused conservatives who feel the party has abandoned them.

“They’re either inactive, discouraged, or disillusioned,’’ said Stephen W. Roberts, a former state party chairman who added that he considers himself a “big tent’’ Republican.

Roberts acknowledges that the evangelicals in the state have built a powerful organization.

“They have made themselves a force to be reckoned with and if you want to go anywhere in the Iowa Republican Party these days, you’d better make your peace with them,’’ he said.

It is unclear whether Romney will be able to do that.

“Mitt Romney needs to do the right thing and come to Iowa and compete,’’ Scheffler said. “If he wants to emphasize fiscal issues, that’s fine. But he also has to reiterate his positions on life and marriage.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at