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Iowa activist says social issues will be defining factors in the primary

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/2010/07/MahurinReligion_Thumb.jpgWith a field of GOP candidates who have yet to catch fire, social issues — especially same sex marriage and abortion — are becoming defining factors in a how a candidate will play in the Hawkeye State, political activist Bob Vander Plaats told The Iowa Independent this week.

Furthermore, Vander Plaats says, social litmus tests are not responsible for driving away more fiscal Republican candidates, like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, or making Iowa’s famed caucuses any less relevant, despite claims from some observers that Vander Plaats’ bloc has “taken over” the Hawkeye State’s GOP.

“Core value issues are important to the Iowa voter,” Vander Plaats, CEO of the conservative-leaning The Family Leader, said. “Regardless of how well a candidate starts out, those core value issues will be the first thing to talk about and establish that trust level with voters. We want a candidate to be who they say they are and stand by their stances. Candidates who want to play games when it comes to core value issues will be seen by voters as playing politics as usual and pandering.”

The Family Leader advocates and lobbies for what they characterize as “pro-family” initiatives, including anti-abortion rights and anti-gay rights. Supporters are typically evangelical Christian conservatives and tea party activists who agree with the group’s stance on government spending.

Yet, the edge that social conservatives like Vander Plaats have gained in Iowa, as well as a recent emphasis on the ethanol industry’s federal subsidies, does directly impact a more fiscal Republican’s decision of how to play in Iowa — if at all.

“The social conservatives have a big edge in numbers in Iowa,” Dr. Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University said. In early June, Schmidt told The Iowa Independent perhaps 30 percent of Republican caucus goers are considered establishment, or moderate or “old school”, Republicans “because of Bob Vander Plaats and the tea party, who have taken over the GOP and are setting the rules and the pace for the process.”

“Taking over? We’re doing our civic duty in vetting candidates,” Vander Plaats said, adding, “I wouldn’t say we took over (the caucuses), but we do have an interest.”

The proof of the importance of social issue stances in Iowa lies in the state’s own voting record, Vander Plaats said. Last year, Vander Plaats — who has had three unsuccessful gubernatorial bids — organized an effort to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices in a November retention vote. The justices — former Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and justices David Baker and Michael Streit — were part of a unanimous 2009 decision that a state law limiting marriage to be in violation of the Iowa Constitution’s equal protection clause.

“You know, people said the marriage issue wasn’t going to sell; the economy was. Terry Branstad said that,” Vander Plaats said. “But marriage did sell. And now three Supreme Court Justices are out of a job.”

Talk of the Iowa Caucuses — prominently known for their first-in-the-nation status — losing relevance on the national stage due to candidates’ fear of pandering to the religious right should be disregarded, Vander Plaats said.

“Look at everyone playing here,” he said, referring to appearances and trips to Iowa made by presidential hopefuls. “Those who aren’t have weak excuses about ethanol policy and subsidies.”

Schmidt was skeptical, saying while Iowa is “open for business” to those in the presidential arena, the edge Iowa’s social conservative base holds on the caucuses “poses a dilemma for the GOP contenders like Huntsman and Romney who do not want to fall on their knees for Christian conservative activists and also do not want to get into the ‘one crop’ litmus test of whether they support ethanol subsidies. So Iowa will not have active participation from these and some others.”

Romney has said his face time in Iowa will be adequate but indicated it will be scaled back from where it was four years ago, when Romney vigorously fought for an Iowa backing. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman told the Associated Press he will avoid Iowa, including the caucuses, completely during his campaign.

“Ironically, Huntsman said he won’t play in Iowa because of (ethanol mogul) Bruce Rastetter and ethanol — that’s the other wing of the party,” Vander Plaats said, meaning establishment Republicans. “It has nothing to do with Bob Vander Plaats, The Family Leader, or core values like being pro-family.”

In the case of Romney, a national frontrunner in several 2012 polls, Vander Plaats explained that the former governor’s support base “has eroded from under him” in the last four years.

“I think he just saw last time as a bad return on the investment,” he said, adding that while Romney thus far has campaigned more on his private sector experience instead of focusing more on social issues, “I don’t think Romney has to pander to anyone.”

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