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The Iowa caucuses won't be held until next winter, but they are the first big test of the presidential-nominating process. And this time, those caucuses will be the first presidential contest since the rise of the Tea Party.

With the field of Republican candidates still taking shape, the Iowa Tea Party has begun its own campaign, a three-week long bus tour across the state.

NPR's Don Gonyea caught up with the bus on one of its stops.

DON GONYEA: The bus is actually a giant RV. A banner on the side features images of the U.S. Constitution, the American Flag, and the web address www.teapartybustour.com.

(Soundbite of bus horn)

GONYEA: This is a city park in the town of Spencer, Iowa in the northwest part of the state. The actual event is not one of those big Tea Party rallies like we saw during the 2010 campaign. This time it's about 20 people in a small community meeting room.

Mr. RYAN RHODES (Tour Organizers): Well first off I want to thank everybody for coming out here today, its - especially on a beautiful day here. I hope this will be very useful to everybody coming.

GONYEA: Ryan Rhodes is one of the tours organizers. There are a lot of Tea Party movement staples here: a handful of speakers, one promoting a return to the gold standard, another calling for the elimination of the Department of Education. Questions about President Obama's religion are raised by one. But the biggest chunk of time is devoted to a PowerPoint presentation about effective campaign organizing.

Mr. RHODES: Heres a sample precinct voter list. As youll see theres the ID number which is totally meaningless. Someones full name, how theyre registered to vote, their address, probably the most important piece of information is their address.

GONYEA: It's the kind of presentation that any activist in any political party might sit through. And the Iowa Tea Party thinks it's something it's members, many of whom are relatively new to politics, need to know. But there is also plenty of talk, outside and during breaks, about the GOP field. Ryan Rhodes says he has not picked a candidate yet, but quickly adds that it wont be Mitt Romney. He says he was disappointed that in the last debate, Romney was treated with kid-gloves, especially on health care.

Mr. RHODES: I think some of those candidates need to get out there and prove that if theyre going to beat the front runner that theyre willing to take those tough shots.

GONYEA: But, Romney did have some support in this Tea Party crowd. Eighty-three-year-old Rhoda Kaiser is from the nearby town of Milford.

Ms. RHODA KAISER: Well I was for Romney the first time, last time. But I like Romney and I like his whole family. I just think theyre a wonderful family and I think that he'll try.

GONYEA: Tea Party growth was fueled by opposition to the health care bill President Obama signed into law last year. And much of the focus, overall, is on fiscal matters. But in Iowa, the Republican Party is dominated by Christian conservatives, and some of that emphasis turns up in the Tea Party as well. State Representative Tom Shaw spoke to the gathering in Spencer.

Representative TOM SHAW (Iowa State Congress: Now, a lot of people say but Mr. Shaw, its all about the economy stupid! You know, jobs, jobs, jobs! We've got to have the economy! How do we expect to have moral men to run our nations government, our state governments, work on the economy, if they dont have the basic morality to preserve innocent life?

GONYEA: But Dan Rogers, a tea party activist from Spirit Lake, insists the economy and fiscal issues are the most important. He likes Ron Paul the best, but recognizes there is no consensus within the movement.

Mr. DAN ROGERS (Tea Party Activist): The problem will be if its split amongst several candidates, the Tea Party vote; if its split between Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Bachmann. But Im afraid you could end up, you know, splitting the vote and getting Romney even though he might only have the support of 30 to 40 percent.

GONYEA: Thats why the Tea Party impact may not be what it was in 2010, says Rogers.

Mr. ROGERS: But state organizers say the best way to keep the party together and effective is to keep its people together and informed.

They hope the bus tour will remind them what's at stake.

Don Gonyea. NPR News

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