Iowa Prepares For 2012 Presidential Primaries

The start of the 2012 presidential primary season is still almost a year away. The field of candidates has just begun to form. But some Iowa organizations are already gearing up for the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses next winter.

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The start of the 2012 presidential primary season is still almost a year away, and the field of candidates has only just begun to take shape. But some Iowa organizations are already gearing up for the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses next winter.

NPR's Don Gonyea was in Iowa this week, and he sat down with some of the key players.

DON GONYEA: Last time around, the Iowa caucuses were a free-for-all for both parties, but in 2012, the action will be on the GOP side.

David Yepsen, a long-time Des Moines Register columnist, now at Southern Illinois University, says the big question is how Republicans balance social issues and deep economic concerns. That's not a new challenge, but this time the wildcard is a movement that didn't even exist in 2008.

Mr. DAVID YEPSEN (Southern Illinois University): They've got to accommodate the Tea Party and many of their activists who have come surging into the party and are giving it a lot of new energy. So I think those are the forces at work in Iowa, just as they are in the Republican Party and all over the country.

GONYEA: Potential candidates have already begun crisscrossing the state, giving speeches, signing up campaign operatives and wooing the various interest groups. Christian conservatives are perhaps the single most dominant group within the Iowa GOP. In 2008, 60 percent of those who took part in the Republican caucuses called themselves evangelicals.

Chuck Hurley of the Iowa Family Policy Center says he's never seen this much enthusiasm this far in advance of the caucuses, and he wants to put it to use.

Mr. CHUCK HURLEY (Iowa Family Policy Center): The Bible says: The diligent shall rule. It doesn't say the godly, and it doesn't say the ungodly. It says the diligent.

GONYEA: And Hurley says while polls rank the economy as the top concern, that doesn't mean Iowa Republicans should settle for anyone who isn't strongly opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage.

Just last November, Iowa voters removed three state Supreme Court justices over a ruling that legalized gay marriage in Iowa. Chuck Hurley says that issue is a motivator.

Mr. HURLEY: Those who caught the bug in '09 or '10 I think are going to stick around for this cycle, certainly in Iowa because the cycle is already hot, and I just don't see that dissipating.

GONYEA: Another group that could be a force in Iowa in the coming year has its focus entirely on fiscal matters. Ed Failor, the president of Iowans for Tax Relief, says talk of divisions between social and fiscal conservatives is overblown. He says a lot of his members put themselves in both camps. Still, he says...

Mr. ED FAILOR (President, Iowans for Tax Relief): The folks who need you to be extremely right-wing conservative on all the social issues, they aren't going to determine who the, you know, who the winner of the caucuses are at the end of the day.

GONYEA: Failor then adds...

Mr. FAILOR: Look, it's sort of Maslow's hierarchy of needs right now, and we're dealing with people out of work and who are figuring out how to put food on their tables and roofs over their families' heads.

GONYEA: Then there's the new kid on the block: the Tea Party. Many organizations have sprung up across the state that associate themselves with that name. Ryan Rhodes is the founder of one called, simply, The Iowa Tea Party.

Sitting down for an interview at the Iowa capitol building, Rhodes says the Iowa Tea Party has already begun work to organize and train Tea Party activists, many of whom have never been to a caucus before.

Mr. RYAN RHODES (Founder, The Iowa Tea Party): You've got to teach them the caucus processes. There's always change from year to year.

GONYEA: But he predicts the next wave of change will be a Tea Party wave, and it will change the conversation both before and after the caucuses themselves.

Mr. RHODES: No matter who wins, you're going to see a different debate than you've ever seen. You're going to see people walking up and asking: Where is this in the Constitution? What are you going to do?

GONYEA: Iowa Republicans know their state launched President Obama's rise to the White House in 2008, and they are determined to launch a campaign here that drives him from office in 2012.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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