Economy is priority among conservatives in Iowa presidential race

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It’s spring in Iowa and the harbingers of the presidential race are showing up everywhere. Contenders for the Republican nomination are flying in for speeches. Party activists are meeting in cafes. But something unusual is happening in the home of the first contest on the 2012 election calendar.

The prime subject of political discussion isn’t gays marrying, or abortion or other social issues. It's the federal deficit.

The early buzz in Iowa appears to be only the latest indicator of what the next election will – and won’t – be about. Even in a state known as a stronghold of evangelical Republican conservatives, where Southern Baptist minister Mike Huckabee surged to victory in the 2008 state caucuses, the concern this time is money first, then morals, party leaders agree.

“Those social issues are always there, but they are not going to be in the forefront. And that’s different,” said Gwen Ecklund, a Republican in heavily conservative western Iowa.

That shift could affect the presidential campaign and the Republican candidates who join it. As the first state to choose a nominee, Iowa gives its winner an important boost for the campaign’s next stops. Because Christian activists hold prominent roles in the GOP caucuses, the state has been a launching pad for conservative candidates who champion social issues like abortion.

Now, that dynamic may be different, and Republicans with deeper fiscal credentials could benefit, altering the race’s initial months. Iowa’s caucuses are scheduled for Feb. 6, followed by primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Interviews with GOP leaders and caucus-goers across Iowa indicated a changed mood from years past, a development some didn’t expect.

“That doesn't mean that people have forgotten about social issues. But without question, the fears I hear most – and my biggest fear – is that I don’t see how we avoid a double-dip recession,” said Loras Schulte, a Republican and social conservative activist from northeast Iowa. “I would not have expected that four years ago.”

Most of the earliest issue forums for candidates have been put on by Christian and conservative organizations, but GOP activists are planning high-profile platforms for Iowa audiences on jobs, taxes and the federal budget. In 2008, only one group held such a multicandidate event in Iowa.

Strong America Now, a national group focused on reducing the federal deficit, has announced a June 18 presidential candidate forum in Des Moines. Mary Andringa, chairwoman of the National Association of Manufacturers and an influential Iowa Republican, and Republican Gov. Terry Branstad plan to host an event focused on taxes and the economy in November. Iowans for Tax Relief, an influential lobbying and political group in the state, is considering hosting the candidates this year.

And Tea Party organizers are planning a statewide bus tour in June and July focusing on the budget and monetary policy.

The candidates have sensed the change, even those most closely associated with social issues, such as former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. He was one of the party’s most outspoken opponents of abortion during his years in Congress and made the issue the centerpiece of his campaigns.

“Notice I don’t talk about those issues in my speech” now, Santorum said in an interview after a recent appearance here. “I talk about the moral component to our society, but I don’t talk about marriage and life as the lead issues.”

Santorum, who appeared at a candidate forum at an evangelical church in suburban Des Moines, is hoping to win support from conservatives with different priorities. “I’m here to tell you I’ve got a solid conservative record, taking on entitlements,” Santorum told a gathering of Republicans in Marshalltown on May 6.

A number of leading Iowa Republicans are trying to entice Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels to enter the race and to campaign in Iowa. In normal years, Daniels might not have much appeal here, as someone who made his reputation as a fiscal hawk and put social issues on the backburner in his state. This year, though, that might not be a problem.

Branstad, who served four terms in the 1980s and 1990s before waging a comeback last year, said Iowa could surprise people this time. If a candidate “comes in with the right kind of message on the economic issues, they could well win,” he said. Not so in 2008, when Huckabee beat businessman Mitt Romney, despite Romney's huge investment of staff and money in the state.

Christian conservative activists began taking a larger role in the caucuses about 20 years ago. Their impact was illustrated by the Rev. Pat Robertson’s second-place finish in 1988 and reinforced by Huckabee’s win in 2008. Sixty percent of Republican caucus-goers in 2008 said they were born-again or evangelical Christians, according to exit polls.

But Branstad said the unusually large turnout in the 2010 primary election in Iowa showed that economic anxieties were now mobilizing more conservative voters.