DES MOINES — The ailing economy and the Tea Party’s demand for smaller government have dominated Republican politics for two years, but a resurgent social conservative movement is shaping the first stage of the presidential nominating contest, complicating the strategy for candidates who prefer to focus on fiscal issues over faith.
Here in Iowa, whose caucuses next winter will open the campaign, social and religious conservatives are pressing the likely candidates on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion rather than on jobs, the budget deficit and other economic concerns that leaders of both parties expect to dominate the general election.
The development provides opportunities for candidates like Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who have a following among social conservatives. But it could make Iowa even more difficult territory for, among others, Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who has yet to visit the state this year.
More broadly, some Republicans say, it could muddle the party’s message as it seeks to defeat President Obama.
“We look like Camp Christian out here,” said Doug Gross, a Republican activist and former nominee for governor. “If Iowa becomes some extraneous right-wing outpost, you have to question whether it is going to be a good place to vet your presidential candidates.”
While social conservatives have long wielded a greater influence in Iowa than in many early-voting states, a bitter fight here over same-sex marriage and rivalries among some of the state’s conservative leaders have amplified the issues and might help define the message of Republican candidates in ways that could resonate nationally.
No events have focused solely on the economy, job creation or even the health care law that is widely reviled among Republicans. Instead, the most prominent platforms for candidates to introduce themselves have been a number of forums — three last week alone — before socially conservative audiences in Iowa.
Several Republican prospects appeared here Saturday at the Conservative Principles Conference sponsored by Representative Steve King of Iowa, one of the party’s firebrands in Congress, who argues that “culture, not the economy, is the most important thing” in choosing a nominee. He said he planned to endorse a candidate “who can be an effective constitutional president.”
All prospective contenders are trying to glean lessons from the 2008 Iowa caucuses, when former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas scored an unexpected victory, in part by winning over evangelical Christians. Four years ago, he was the only candidate to address a forum of Iowa pastors called Rediscovering God in America. But Gov.Haley Barbour of Mississippi and former Speaker Newt Gingrich were among those attending this year’s event.
A balancing act has been on display all weekend.
Iowa Caucus May Bring Social Issues Back To GOP
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