DES MOINES-Talk radio host Steve Deace likes to tell his listeners that the 2010 election was the goal-line stand for social conservatives, but this election is the opportunity to change the scoreboard. He says they need to answer one question: Who will be the quarterback?
Iowa, with its caucuses early next year, is where voters look for clues.
In 2007, the Iowa Straw Poll vaulted former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to the top of the order for social conservatives, and quashed the hopes of Sen. Sam Brownback and others. The Iowa race then settled largely into a choice between Mitt Romney and Huckabee, with Huckabee winning major evangelical support like George W. Bush had accumulated eight years earlier. This year's race has no such clarity yet. Iowa conservatives largely say it is wide open.
Barring a late entry by Sarah Palin, the Iowa winner is likely to be either Texas Gov. Rick Perry or Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, but it's not quite that simple, says blogger Shane Vanderhart. Support is still shallow, and many of Huckabee's enthusiasts are not fully on board yet for any of this round's hopefuls. "We just want to be sure we launch the right candidate," said Bob Vander Plaats, head of The Family Leader.
It's not that social conservatives dislike the policy positions articulated by the field. Jenifer Bowen of Iowa Right to Life says Iowans are blessed to have a choice among multiple pro-life champions. Most of the candidates range from acceptable to excellent on the issues these voters hold dear. "A lot of them are saying the same things," notes GOP national committeeman Steve Scheffler. "People are still trying to sort all that out."
But other dynamics are keeping the outcome unpredictable. For one thing, the campaigns aren't demonstrably putting in the grueling 99-county footwork that famously elevated past upstarts. One exception is Rick Santorum, whose low-budget campaign is taking him beyond Des Moines and Cedar Rapids into rural counties. The former Pennsylvania senator's name repeatedly comes up among Christian conservatives who like his long track record on social issues.
For Bachmann and Perry, the next two or three months are about changing soft support to real loyalty, while candidates mired in single digits in the polls must convince voters a win is still possible. Newt Gingrich is retooling and seeking attention in debates. Herman Cain is hoping his economic plan will score with voters. "I think it's possible for just about anybody to win," said Scheffler.
Both Scheffler and Vander Plaats have scheduled forums in Des Moines geared specifically to "values voters." Scheffler's Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition forum is on Oct. 22, and Vander Plaats will host The Family Leader's Thanksgiving Family Forum on Nov. 19. "The largest and most influential voting bloc in Iowa is still very much up for grabs," radio's Deace said.
It's noteworthy that Iowa's social conservative activists tend not even to mention Romney-second in most national polls-unless questioned about him. Yet, they admit there's a scenario for the former Massachusetts governor to emerge from Iowa with momentum for his New Hampshire strategy. Despite his tuned-down activity in Iowa this time, Romney has a dependable pocket of support. Libertarian conservative Ron Paul attracts little support from social conservatives, but he could improve on his fifth-place outcome four years ago.
A final in-or-out announcement from Sarah Palin will help settle the field. Most Iowa activists do not expect her to run but acknowledge that she has some enthusiastic support here. Invariably, they say it's almost too late for her to mount a credible organization in Iowa.