- Associated Press - Monday, March 21, 2011

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 gears up to pick an opponent for President Obama in 2012.

“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 Mr. 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 evangelical voters coalesced around the underfunded former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to give the Southern Baptist minister a surprise first-place finish.

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

“They have essentially the best organization of the various Republican constituencies,” said Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford.

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 the ouster of the state’s Democratic governor.

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 Mr. 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 national 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 their focus on such issues as gay marriage and abortion.

The state could thus 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.

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 battles over divisive social issues while the economy is in such trouble.

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