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Moderate Republicans appear to be skipping Iowa
DES MOINES - Is Iowa too socially conservative for moderate Republican presidential candidates?
Based on the amount of time 2016 GOP candidates have spent campaigning in the first-in-the-nation caucus state, it appears they believe it is.
When measured by the number of days spent in Iowa and the number of events held here, the least-active Republican candidates in Iowa also are the expansive field's most moderate - Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich.
The only other candidate to spend as little time in Iowa and hold as few events here as that group is front-runner Donald Trump, whose candidacy has defied conventional wisdom in more ways than one.
Bush, Christie and Kasich - all current or former governors - have spent far more time campaigning in New Hampshire, which takes the presidential nominating torch from Iowa and conducts the nation's first presidential primary election. The trio is in the bottom tier of polling in Iowa and among the leaders in New Hampshire.
Those moderates' light Iowa campaign schedules - relative to the rest of the Republican field - follow 2008 and 2012 Iowa GOP caucuses won by social conservatives Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, neither of whom became the party's nominee.
The leader in the most recent polls on the 2016 Republican race in Iowa is Ted Cruz, who has made a heavy play for the state's social conservative vote and secured that voting bloc's biggest endorsements in Bob Vander Plaats and Shane Vander Hart.
If Cruz wins Iowa but fails to secure the Republican nomination, it likely will further feed the growing perception that Iowa Republicans are far more socially conservative than the GOP nationwide.
'Unfortunately yes (that criticism will grow),” said Tim Hagle, a political-science professor at the University of Iowa who wrote a book on the 2012 Iowa caucuses. 'If it turns out that Ted Cruz (wins the 2016 caucus and) doesn't get the nomination, then, yeah, (future moderate candidates) are going to say, ‘Look, you picked these social conservatives three times in a row, so why should we compete there?'”
Brent Siegrist, a former Iowa House Speaker who is supporting Kasich, agreed the moderate candidates in 2016 are focusing far more on New Hampshire and beyond than Iowa, and conceded that could be 'detrimental” to Iowa's first-in-the-nation status.
'There has been a little more of their focus, certainly Christie and Kasich, on New Hampshire. And now Bush,” Siegrist said. 'What that is is open to speculation. But as many people would say, it's that the Iowa caucus-goer is a more conservative, evangelical-based group.”
IN IOWA'S DEFENSE
While a victory for Cruz would represent three consecutive Iowa caucus victories for the state's social conservatives, Republicans are quick to point to Mitt Romney's second-place finish in 2012. Romney, the eventual nominee, finished second to Santorum by the historically small margin of just 34 votes.
'Losing by 34 votes as Mitt Romney did, I think it's safe to say Iowa picked two people at that time. One was Rick Santorum, who worked his tail off, and the other was our (party's eventual) nominee,” said Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa. 'I think Iowa had its cake and ate it, too.”
And Hagle noted Santorum went on to win 10 other states after Iowa.
'So it's not like he was a disaster,” Hagle said.
Hagle described moderates' apparent hesitance to campaign hard in Iowa as 'circular,” in that a lackluster campaign effort here naturally will yield poor results.
'If the establishment people aren't competing here and competing hard here, then of course they're not going to win here,” Hagle said.
Siegrist said Kasich has been well-received at his Iowa stops, limited so far as they may have been in number. Siegrist said moderate candidates should not hesitate to campaign here, including his own.
'I would liked to have seen him here more,” Siegrist said of Kasich.
TV Versus BOOTS
Some of the Republican candidates are choosing to rely on advertising in Iowa over grass roots campaigning, which goes against the traditional expectation of Iowa's retail politics.
The Bush and Marco Rubio campaigns - as well as independent group supporting those candidates - have spent in the ballpark of $10 million apiece on advertising in Iowa, according to multiple media reports.
Rubio, who is running third in most recent polls on the race in Iowa, is roughly in the middle of the Republican pack when it comes to number of days spent in Iowa and events held here.
'I would strongly argue that showing up here is the No. 1 factor, but Marco Rubio's investment in Iowa, in terms of commercials and dollars, there's no argument that can be made that he is ignoring Iowa,” Kaufmann said. 'Even though we are a retail politics state, some of these candidates are trying the approach of media. And we'll see how that goes.”
Kaufmann was interviewed for this story via phone from South Carolina where he was taking in the Republican debate and said he was lobbying national party leaders to preserve Iowa's first-in-the-nation status, which seemingly is under constant fire.
But Kaufmann added he doesn't worry about lightly caucusing moderates hurting the future of the Iowa caucuses.
'I'm really not because these candidates are still here. We still have Chris Christie here, we still have Jeb Bush. Jeb Bush is still running commercials here,” Kaufmann said.
'Our Christian evangelicals in the party are important, but they are not the majority …
. I'm really not worried about that.”